Colette finds the real people in its credit-stealing husband cliché

Film Review | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

November 7–9

RPL Film Theatre

The story of the female artist whose talent is exploited by a male partner ­who takes credit for her work is getting a little cliché. Already this year we’ve had the painfully flat Mary Shelley, with Elle Fanning as the titular tortured soul taken advantage of by notorious philanderer Percy Shelley. I don’t know about you but to me, nothing says “unsanctioned reanimation” like casting Dakota Fanning’s little sister.

Colette has similar elements but it’s smart enough to make its main characters more than cardboard-figures.

A country girl with dreams of a more exciting life, Colette (Keira Knightley) jumps at the chance to marry Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West, McNulty on The Wire), a much older writer and publisher.

Perpetually broke and always up for a good time (gee I wonder if there’s a connection?), Henry — better known by his pen name, Willy — notices his wife can write. Through encouragement and less wholesome methods (like locking her up until she delivers a chapter), Willy shapes Colette’s output into a semi-autobiographical novel, Claudine at School. The erotic coming-of-age story becomes the talk of the town after it’s published under Willy’s name. Hey, it’s 1900 — no one would buy a novel by a female, right?

Three more “Claudine” books follow, each more successful than the one before. Colette demands some of the credit but her husband refuses to share. Think of a Hollywood producer churning out sequels to his single box office success and you’ll have an idea of Willy’s mindset.

As unbalanced as the relationship sounds, co-writer/director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) digs a little deeper. Sure, Willy is a reprobate but his editorial instincts are unimpeachable. Colette may be married to a cad, but she’s hardly a victim (she’s granted nearly the same liberties her husband takes) and she’s constantly absorbing information. There’s never hate between them, just an unspoken arrangement that lasts longer than it should have.

It crossed my mind that here is Keira Knightley starring in another corset movie. Unlike previous efforts though, there’s little naiveté in Colette: she’s doing the best she can with the cards she’s dealt. Even Dominic West — particularly good at playing jerks — finds a more playful gear as the charmingly deceitful Willy.

Impeccably written and acted, the movie transcends the message of female emancipation to deliver actual entertainment. What else could you ask for?