“She made sense to me very quickly as soon as I read the script. It was so clear, just a joy really. And I got to get out of a sarcophagus! I mean, that’s once in a lifetime!”
Keira Knightley is talking to the audience after the premiere screening of Colette, a period drama about the life of the famous French writer. The sarcophagus in question is from a scene where Colette, struggling to find her independence, tours with a theatrical company, alongside her cross-dressing lover, Missy. According to director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) the Egyptian themed performance culminates in a public and scandalous lesbian kiss that literally caused a riot.
Knightley is the go-to actress for spirited period heroines; Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method, Georgiana in The Duchess, and Colette is another trailblazer.
Born in 1873, at age 20 Colette married publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars, a libertine in his 40s, known by his non-de-plume ‘Willy.’ She wrote four novels about a teenage convent school girl, Claudine, but Willy published them as his own, making a sizable fortune in the process. The film charts Colette’s journey to get out from under this oppression and claim her own talent. She went on to write famous titles including Cheri and Gigi and in 1948, a few years before her death, was nominated for the Nobel prize in Literature.
“It’s taken 16 years to get this movie going. I wrote the script with my late husband and co-writer Richard Glatzer in 2001 and it was always our dream project,” says Westmoreland. “It’s an incredible story of a woman who has so much personal power but is being held down by social forces and by her husband. You see that she’s so talented but he’s taking credit for it, so there’s this natural desire to see her break through, and that’s really the kernel of the film. I very much related to Colette. When she was confronted with a barrier in life she just smashed through it, she had courage, no fear and just stepped forward.”
Crucial to the film was the casting of the domineering husband, Willy, a role that went to Dominic West (The Wire). “It’s a complicated part,” Westmoreland explains. “He’s a bully but you have to understand why the relationship survives as long as it does and why his power becomes eroticised and plays into submission and all that stuff. I knew Dominic could bring the charm that would make Willy into a three-dimensional person and not just a cardboard villain.”
West tells us, “Wash saw me in Les Liaisons Dangereuses and I suppose he saw me playing a caddish Frenchman and that was the audition for the part of Willy! Keira and I rehearsed for a good couple of weeks. We were keen to show that there was love and respect in their marriage. She loved him most of her life I think, and he certainly loved her. That was an important point so that you would be able to feel for them when they split up. He’s a villain really, taking credit for her work, but he’s of his time.”
The film is a romp and a visual feast, evoking La Belle Époque with depth and style. “I looked at The Earrings of Madame De by French master Max Ophuls,” says Westmoreland. “It was the age of the Impressionists so we looked at the painters of the time like Jean Beraud, Gustave Caillebotte and Jean Renoir. It was about bringing the period to life, in music like Ravel and Satie. Our composer Thomas Ades brought the music of that time back with his score. We didn’t want something that just hums along, we wanted a full-bodied burgundy!
Westmoreland also explained the choice to have pages written in French but have the actors speaking in British accents. “I don’t think art should have national boundaries; leave that to the politicians. I really like it when cultures interact, like when you get the Bollywood version of Macbeth [Maqbool]. I thought there was a place for an English language version of Colette and I thought about doing it with a French accent. I can explain why I didn’t in two words – Inspector Clouseau! If everyone’s doing French accents it would be distracting. I wanted the audience to understand the region and the class, but it wouldn’t sound like they came from a different country.”
Audience questions after the screening mentioned the relevance of the film in light of ‘Me Too’ and ‘Its Time.’ It was the day of the Women’s March and Westmoreland dedicated the screening to the women that took part, before stating, “I’m not going to give a ‘Mansplantation’ of feminism,” handing the microphone to one of his female producers.
“Women’s history is basically a silenced history,” she said. “There are probably many Colettes out there, it’s just that Colette was an extraordinary woman who broke the boundaries intellectually, creatively and in terms of sexual expression. The universality of the theme applies to all women and men, it’s about all voices being heard, so that’s our hope for this story going out in the world.”
Image courtesy of Sundance Institute