Most folks are familiar with Colette as the legendary bisexual French author of the provocative and wildly popular Claudine stories, among her many other writings. Wash Westmoreland’s gorgeous new cinematic rendering of Colette’s early life in Belle Epoque Paris, was co-written with his late husband Richard Glatzer (the two made numerous films together including Quinceañera and Still Alice, before Glatzer passed away from complications due to ALS in 2015).
Glatzer and Westmoreland’s script unfolds the remarkable account of how Colette (vibrantly portrayed here by the not especially Gallic but nonetheless incredibly lovely Keira Knightley) essentially ghostwrote the Claudine stories for her husband Willy, the larger-than-life Parisian writer and self-promoter whose full name was Henry Gauthier-Villars and whose own authorial tendencies leaned in the erotic direction of (to quote a line from the film): “more spice and less literature.” Willy (played to the hilt by Dominic West fresh off the giant Hollywood blockbuster Tomb Raider) was publicly credited as the author of the Claudine stories until, as their marriage eventually dissolved, Colette would publicly prove herself the true author and would then go on to become the most important woman writer in the history of French literature.
Gay men of a certain age will recall that Colette also wrote Gigi—made most famous by Leslie Caron and brought to the screen in 1958, which remains one of those all-time gay favorites despite having no actual gay content.
The film spans the early years of Colette’s literary career—from 1892 to 1905. When we first meet young pigtailed country girl Colette, her free spirit is evident. Within the first five minutes of the film, she has a clandestine premarital hayloft hookup with her decidedly-older soon-to-be husband. Her literary future is foreshadowed as well, as the first thing she does afterward is to pick up her pen and write about it.
Flash-forward a year hence as Colette struggles to get used to her new life with Willy in Paris. Colette confers with her mother back home and evolves past the concept that she “better get used to marriage” determining that in fact, it would be better to, “make marriage get used to you.”
Knightley is delicious to watch in her sensuous portrayal of this legendarily sensuous historical figure. Yes, she has a husband virtually from the first frame to last and yet, marvelously, there is no question this is one of the queerest films of the year. Her unconventional May-December marriage to Willy quickly goes awry—as Willy embarks on some predictable philandering. It doesn’t take long for Colette to put her foot down and squelch his extra-marital affair. Before we know it, Colette gets in touch with her bisexual proclivities (after a flirtatious salon encounter with a seemingly straight cisgender couple, played by cis actress Janine Harouni and trans actor Jake Graf). As Willy expresses his jealousy later on over how this man was flirting with his wife, Colette mischievously shares with him, “It was the wife I found interesting.”
As Willy’s star rises with the release of each book in the Claudine series, he becomes the toast of Paris, with Colette at his side. The century turns—it is 1900. The story now gets queerer by the minute with various background extras and small parts such as Colette’s gender non-conforming best friend, a dancer and mime named Wague played by British lip-synch drag artiste Dickie Beau (who will next be seen in a small part in the Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody).
When Southern belle Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) starts hitting on her over dinner out at a restaurant, and Colette boldly encourages her attention, the film really hits its queer stride.
“When you raise your eyelids, it’s as if you were taking off all my clothes,” Knightley breathtakingly pronounces to Georgie on arriving at her apartment as prelude to, may I just say, one of the best lesbian kissing sequences ever seen in a mainstream film (though maybe my judgment is slightly off due to my epic obsession with Knightley which began with her 2002 performance in Bend it Like Beckham).
A protracted affair ensues between the two women with no objections from Willy. But as that affair unfolds, Georgie quickly becomes involved in an additional (in this case illicit) affair with, wait for it…Willy. Colette soon discovers the deception and this whimsical pseudo-polyamorous adventure arrives at an abrupt conclusion.
But wait, it gets better.
Lesbian audiences having become accustomed to lukewarm lesbian kissing scenes and misguided portrayals of straight women with no romantic chemistry pretending to be lesbians in so many mainstream films over the decades it is inspiring, to say the least, that Knightley now quickly discovers an even more compelling paramour—the be-suited masculine-of-center Missy (Denise Gough). The two embark on an extremely sexy romance that includes a well-executed love scene in which Missy tops Colette (not to imply there’s anything at all explicit, it’s just plain hot). The lead-up to the scene is terrific with Willy pondering out loud to Colette (with regard to Missy’s masculine appearance and Colette’s attraction to her), “She perplexes me. Isn’t there something missing?” At which point we cut to: Missy on top of Colette mid-fuck in a demonstration that there doesn’t seem to be anything lacking at all.
This entire relationship is wonderfully done even if Gough isn’t quite 100% perfectly satisfying in her enactment of queer masculinity.
In an interesting subsequent exchange, Willy refers to Missy using a female pronoun and Colette corrects him with the reminder that Missy should be referred to as He. It’s a lovely trans-ally scene, even if it seems a bit historically anachronistic. The film credits acknowledge well-known British trans filmmaker (and an old friend of mine) Kristiene Clarke as having served as the film’s trans consultant.
This all brings us to the most interesting aspect of the film which is how it engages the gender identity of the Missy character in particular.
I have to say that up until, and even beyond this point in the film, my reading of this character was that she was a butch lesbian. A masculine, cross-dressing dyke like so many well-known historical figures of that era and all across history—from Radclyffe Hall to Romaine Brooks to Erika Mann. All of whom certainly were gender non-conforming and perhaps might even have embraced a trans identity had they come of age in the present day. But would they have claimed He/His as their preferred pronouns 100 years ago? Even if they had, there’s no question that this scene is mapping a common contemporary occurrence (correcting someone for misgendering a trans person) onto a historical scene.
Of course, this is a moment in time where there has been much discussion of how important it is that trans characters should be portrayed by trans actors (or at least that this is an ideal to strive for).
Possibly this gesture around the pronoun is meant to be a thoughtful effort to somehow compensate for the fact that Gough, the actress portraying this character, is a cis woman and that if that character is indeed trans, the film falls short of this ideal.
The converse argument though would be that by transposing a contemporary trans identity onto a butch historical character, are we not then erasing a butch identity (which while it may also involve a non-cis experience of the world is still distinct from a trans identity).
Exploring these questions in further depth would exceed my assigned word count here and take us even further away from the purview of film criticism. I don’t feel passionately attached to a position on this specific character’s gender identity—other than believing that these are incredibly rich conversations that should open up our curiosity about gender and create more space for learning and discussion. Certainly, the film achieves this goal in its casting on every level (trans actress Rebecca Root also plays another cis character in the film).
At the end of the day, Colette the film, like Colette the historical figure, manages to speak to each letter in the LGBTQ community while also transcending identities and being simply a wonderfully entertaining movie all audiences will want to see.