Colette is the kind of film the British are so good at: the detailed character piece. And Colette is certainly a character.

I have long been a fan of the novels, and was at turns delighted and apprehensive about how their trail-blazing author would be represented in film. I was not disappointed.
In perhaps her best performance since Atonement, Keira Knightly delivers a wholly believable Colette as a young French country girl. It’s not a small achievement. It is a little confusing when Fiona Shaw (aka Harry Potter’s awful aunt) appears as her mother. Was Colette French? Or was she really an English woman who wrote French novels? Dominic West in the role of her boyfriend, Willy (and later husband), doesn’t clear the confusion. But it passes. The landscape, title cards with locations and dates jolt us back into the real story and we are quickly back on track in the French spirit.

The story of Colette is an interesting one. In her own words: “I had a great life. I just wish I’d realised it sooner”. The typical photos we often see on the dust covers of her books are of the older Colette – who clearly enjoyed a full life and was confident in herself.

This film, however, is about the younger Colette and her beginnings as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Brought up in the Burgundy countryside she is seduced by Willy (real name Henry Gauthier Villiers) 14 years her senior. Willy runs a publishing ‘factory’, putting his well-known name to a variety of letters, articles, short stories and novels – written by members of his writing team. After he and Colette marry, he brings her to Paris, she joins his band of writers and eventually writes of her school days (somewhat sauced up) in what becomes the first of the Claudine novels – Claudine at School. This is followed by Claudine in Paris about her Parisian adventures, Claudine Married – about her unconventional relationship with her husband and finally Claudine and Annie. All are published under her husband’s name, which he tells her gives them greater credibility and saleability.

While they enjoyed enormous success as novelists – the Claudine books catapulting the couple to fame and fortune with Willy buying Colette a house in the country for her to write in peace surrounded by nature which she loves – he continues his profligate ways with other women, wine, and gambling, and soon the money runs out.

Meanwhile, Colette matures, becomes an actress and eventually leaves Willy. This is when her real career as a novelist of note begins. But there the film ends. Colette’s most famous work is probably Gigi – which became a musical then an award-winning film in the 1950s. She also wrote Cheri, The Vagabond, and many more.

This film had the audience spellbound. It explores the early period of a woman who had a most interesting life, many love affairs, and a career as an author and actress. She moved with ease through the salons of Paris, could hold her own with anyone, and inspired a generation of women through her feminist portrayal of a young woman in the Claudine series. Claudine was her, and her stories and showed the opportunities available to women in France at that time. The film shows the period where she finds her voice as a woman and as an independent woman beyond that. As her lover Mathilde de Morny (played by Denise Gough) says, “all those young girls, you’ve given them a voice.”

Many women believed they too were Claudine after the book came out and, while Willy was still credited as the author of the novels, people were very aware of Colette and the inspiration that she was.

West is well cast as Willy – his beard may disguise his look a little but his voice is eminently familiar. Eleanor Tomlinson is perfect and gorgeous as the American heiress they both bed, and Gough as Mathilde is superb. Fiona Shaw is impeccable as Colette’s mother Sido – a modern thinker who encourages her daughter to divorce Willy.

It’s a coming of age film, and it’s a realisation of feminism film, and it’s about a woman who wanted more – always more. As her famous heroine, equally determined, says: “My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”

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