Literally the only thing I knew about Colette before we went to see it was that it was about a bi woman living in The Past. SOLD.
As it turns out, it’s a biopic of the French author Colette; or, rather, a Kunstlerroman, a story about how Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, country girl from Burgundy, became Colette, Nobel Prize-nominated author and socialite.
As such, it’s focused on her first marriage, to Henry Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”). Colette‘s Willy is something of a scam artist: he employs people to ghostwrite articles and novels under his own name, and he soon gets Colette writing a series of slightly lewd novels about a schoolgirl called Claudine. The film revolves around their fraught relationship, Colette trying to outmanoeuvre her controlling, manipulative husband and get some control over her work and her identity.
It’s compelling stuff: the script manages to convince us both of Willy’s general vileness and of his specific charisma; we’re desperate for Colette (who’s played by Keira Knightley) to leave him even as we can see the reasons why she might stay. But what really made the film for me was its depiction of Colette’s queer relationships: a fling with Georgie, a rich Louisiana debutante (played with a truly awful accent by Eleanor Tomlinson, who, distractingly, I last saw in teen romcom Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging) and a romance with trans man Missy, a Russian marquis.
Like: this film is so unabashedly, unashamedly queer! This is a relatively mainstream historical film – starring Keira Knightley, currently one of the most bankable actors in the entire world – which features a bunch of non-titillating queer sex, a kinda-sorta-open marriage (although Willy is pretty jealous in a double-standards kind of way) and a scene in which one character corrects another about someone else’s pronouns. And what’s great about all of this is that it’s so matter-of-fact. It’s not a film that’s About queerness. It’s a film in which people just happen to be queer. As many people are.
It makes no bones, though, about the fact that Colette, Georgie and particularly Missy’s queerness is only tolerated because of their social class: Georgie and Missy are both fabulously rich, and even financially straitened Colette is plainly middle-class at the very least. And even for them, tolerance only goes so far: when Colette and Missy perform on-stage together as a couple they experience a torrent of homophobic and transphobic abuse, and their nascent mime show fails as a result. In the same vein, it’s worth noting that as far as I remember, everyone in this film is white. Which is disappointing: representation is not a zero sum game!
Still. I’ve already recommended Colette to several people this year, and I’ll probably go on recommending it, because its queer representation came so utterly out of the blue. More like this, please!