Colette


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Please note that this article contains spoilers.

When we meet Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette for the very first time, she is a young woman who happily allows a man to dominate the room and announce his extremely important and relevant opinions in front of anyone who will listen, preferably women. She, however, is the one who gets the last word at the end of Wash Westmoreland’s biopic after we have witnessed her transformation from a rather shy, Burgundy girl, to a Parisian woman who follows her own rules and is not afraid to voice her opinions; the true becoming of Colette.

Colette, played by Keira Knightley, does not fit the Parisian fin de siècle high society, which she sees as pretentious, ingenuine and, at times, simply rude. Within the first minutes we see her being ridiculed; Colette’s dress is too simple, she is not wearing any jewellery or head piece which, according to some guests as least, makes her look like ‘[Willy’s] orphan relative’ or ‘[his] secret love child’. Costumes remain a very important element throughout the film as it is one of the details, alongside Colette’s mannerisms and tone of voice, that help us see the main heroine’s metamorphosis. As she gains self-confidence, she starts developing her own Parisian style including wearing trousers, which was illegal for women in Paris and, incredibly, remained so until 2013.[1] A number of the film’s costumes were original pieces from the 19th Century and, as there were no duplicates, one incident involved fetching a seamstress all the way from Hungary to sew up a ripped garment after Knightley had stretched her arm too much.[2]

‘I know you like it’ says Colette to Willy when he asks if she likes the dress he had bought for her. This not-so-subtle critique of male gaze is ever-present in Colette as we see Willy dictate the way his wife dresses, wears her hair and even writes. His edits of her novel Claudine are best examples of one-size-fits-all male perspective and so is the plot of Une Passade, the novel Willy is co-writing with Veber, which features a genius author being seduced by a young, flirtatious woman. No surprise then that a man with his perspective finds it ‘interesting’ that most of Claudine readers are, in fact, young women. Similarly, a double-standard applies to the couple’s extra-marital relationships as Willy’s multiple affairs are, according to him, something ordinary, subjects of ‘urges’ natural to men. He deems it acceptable for Colette to sleep with other women, as he will fantasise about the two when it happens, but it would not be so if she was to sleep with another man.

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‘You moulded me to your own desires’ exclaims Colette during the last fight with her soon-to-be ex-husband. There is no doubt that Willy controls her and constantly tries to undermine her talent, claiming she cannot achieve her brilliance without him; that she still needs ‘her headmaster’. The truth is, however, that he is about to lose his greatest ghost-writer, the person whose talent brought him fortune and sustained his popularity, the only person he thought he could lock in a room and demand to write for him. The fact that everything: the country house, the Claudine series and the rights to the novels remained solely in his name did not stop Colette from achieving success after their marriage ended. The author went on to write over 30 books, reported on the events of World War I and was the first woman in France to receive a state funeral.[3] Being released in the era of #MeToo and the ongoing fight for true gender equality, Westmoreland’s latest film is extremely timely and is ‘definitely hashtag Colette too’, as the director says himself.[4]

There is an ongoing debate about straight actors taking on queer roles, but it can be argued that the portrayal of LGBT characters by Hollywood actors can be a positive thing as it ensures the topic does not cease to be spoken about. Being able to claim all five initials of LGBTQ, as Westmoreland claims, makes Colette a true queer period drama.[5] And while Missy (Denise Gough), a transgender character, is played by a cis woman (although the director admits that the decision was complicated and took working with a dedicated transgender consultant), two cisgender parts are played by transgender actors (Rebecca Root as Rachilde and Jake Graf as Gaston De Caillavet, respectively), the role of historically white Pierre Veber is played by an Asian-British actor (Ray Panthaki) and an openly lesbian woman plays a straight character.

As has been proven again and again, one size does not fit all, and Westmoreland’s timely biopic is a prime example of this. The voice of a straight, white male is no longer enough to do justice to the truth of history. We need other perspectives, ‘not just the male gaze, but all kinds of other gazes’.[6] There is still a lot of work to do to achieve true equality for everyone, irrelevant of their gender, sexuality or colour. If a young woman was able to fight for it over 100 years ago, so can we. #Colette.


Alicja Tokarska

freelance translator and writer

January 2019



[1] Devorah Launter, Women in Paris finally allowed to wear trousers, The Telegraph (3rd February 2013) [accessed 3rd January 2019]

[2] Lewis Corner, Colette director Wash Westmoreland on ‘the invisible revolution’ in his queer period drama, Gay Times (30th December 2018) [accessed 3rd January 2019]

[3] Peter Bowen, Who’s Who in Colette, Bleecker Street

[accessed 3rd January 2019]

[4] Brent Lang, Kiera Knightley on ‘Colette’, Pushing for Social Change, and if She’ll Ever Direct, Variety [accessed 4th January 2019]

[5] Lewis Corner, 2018

[6] Lewis Corner, 2018


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