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by Peter Sobczynski

"The White Rose"
4 stars

If there is a person out there whose life has been practically screaming out to be transformed into a biopic, it is Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known throughout the world solely as Colette. An acclaimed author and a pioneering feminist icon, she led a life so bold, audacious and transgressive that the only problem with bringing it to the screen would be in convincing some viewers that her amazing life story really happened. That oversight has finally been tended to with “Colette” but the results are a bit of a mixed bag. To be sure, it is a well-made, respectful and intelligent film that features Keira Knightley delivering one of her finest performances to date. However, considering just how radical and rule-breaking she was in both her life and her work, it seems odd that a movie based on her life would not at least aspire to approach it in an equally risk-taking manner. Now I am not suggesting that the film should have been something along those lines of those demented, though undeniably entertaining, biographical travesties that Ken Russell used to crank out on a regular basis back in the Seventies. However, if the filmmakers could have found some happy medium between that extreme and the staid, straitlaced approach that they have chosen to employ here, the results might have been both more interesting and more in line with capturing the spirit of its subject.

When we first see Colette (Knightley), she hardly seems like the cultural and sexual rabble-rouser that she would eventually become. As the story opens in the mid-1890s, she is a simple country girl who has fallen under the sway of Henry-Gauthier Villars (Dominic West), a garrulous literary entrepreneur whose gimmick is to hire people to write books for him that he then publishes under the pen name of Willy while taking all the credit for them. The moment we first see him, Henri comes across like a fraud and a blowhard but Colette falls for his not-inconsiderable charms and the two soon marry and move to Paris. Colette begins working in Henry’s publishing factory and at one point, he even asks her to write a story inspired by her days as a schoolgirl, known in the book as Claudine. After reading it, however, he cruelly rejects it but at a point when his entire empire seems on the verge of collapse, he decides that it is good enough after all and publishes it, once again under the Willy nom de plume. The book is an immediate sensation throughout the country and even attracts a large and unexpected female audience who are drawn to how “Willy” has so beautifully and concisely transformed their thoughts and experiences into words. Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Henri insists that Colette continue to write more Claudine novels and when she demurs, he literally locks her in the house until she produces pages.

The subsequent books are hits as well and Henri and Colette, who is considered to be his inspiration, become the toast of Paris. One unexpected benefit of this newfound celebrity comes when the couple meets and American heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson) who makes it clear that she is interested in Colette sexually. Colette is interested as well, as it turns out, and the two begin an affair. Although Henri is perfectly happy with this at first—with all the women he has slept with on the sly, he can hardly complain—he soon begins sleeping with the heiress on the sly himself and when his deception is discovered, he insists that Colette use it as the basis for a new book. As time goes on and the success of the books continues, the couple eventually begin to drift apart—Colette becomes enamored with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), a noblewoman known as Missy who has scandalized France with her frankly masculine dress and manner while Henri takes up with a fan () whom dresses up as Claudine for him before they have sex—but the thing that really rocks things between the two comes when Colette insists on her name appearing on the cover of the next Claudine novel. Henri, not surprisingly, refuses and in response, Colette refuses to write and instead goes on tour with a theatrical troupe performing erotically-charged pantomimes that raised more than a few eyebrows back in the day. This leads to a battle of wills in which Colette fights for her own agency, both personal and artistic, while Henri seems hellbent on putting things back to the way they were even though doing so essentially destroys whatever there was that still bound the two together.

As anyone who has ever seen a movie about a writer, famous or otherwise, can attest, the actual process of writing is almost resoundingly anti-cinematic—with few exceptions, there is simply no real way to make someone hunched over a notepad or sitting in front of a typewriter or computer even vaguely exciting. “Colette” deftly steps around this potential pitfall by putting the act of writing to the side for the most part in order to concentrate more fully on the relationship between Colette and Henri. This is especially tricky because the film has to figure out a way to get audiences to understand the dynamics of their relationship and why she would stay with him for so long despite its incredibly exploitative nature without making her seem impossibly naive or making him come across as a grotesque monster. These are actually among the best moments in the film as the screenplay by Wash Westmoreland (who also directed), Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer manages to find just the right notes in depicting their relationship as one that is mutually beneficial to them, both emotionally and artistically, for a surprisingly long period of time, at least until the point when Colette, not unreasonably, decides that she wants more and Henri, unreasonably, is unwilling to give it to her. What especially sells these scenes is the undeniable chemistry that develops between Knightley and West—although the parameters of their relationship might strike audiences as being difficult to swallow, their performances make it work.

The problem with the film is that Colette’s life cries out for a treatment that is as bold as she is and she doesn’t quite get it here. It needs a director willing to take risks and chances and Wash Westmoreland, whose previous credits include “Still Alice” and “The Last of Robin Hood” is not that person. His work is solid, to be sure, but it has the look and feel of a standard-issue biopic throughout that oftentimes seems at odds with the story it is relating. Too often, it gives the film the feeling of a museum piece and while that might work for any number of films of this type, it ends up keeping viewers at a slight remove from the story and the ways in which the fight over the issues that Colette struggled with back in the day are still very much in the forefront today. This doesn’t kill the movie by a long shot but it does mute its impact and at its worst moments, it makes it feel less like a document of a real life and struggle and more like a version of “The Wife” with more interesting underwear. Another frustrating aspect is that by ending the story where it does—with Colette leaving Henri for good and finally publishing under her own name—it ignores a lot of the interesting things that happened to her after the events depicted here, such as the court case in which she proved that she was the true author behind the Claudine stories. A lot of this—though not nearly all of it—is recounted in a series of title cards that play just before the end credits and while looking at them, I couldn’t help but wish that the movie had been about those events than the one I had just seen.

Still, as obvious pieces of Oscar bait go, “Colette” is pretty good. Even with the sometimes listless directorial approach, the story is still interesting enough to be of interest to both fans of Colette and those who have never heard of her before. It is also blessed with a very strong performance by Keira Knightley, who pulls off the neat trick of looking and sounding as if she belongs among the period trappings while at the same time suggesting a modern vibe that feels right for someone like Colette. I just wish that the film had taken a few more risks and tried a little harder to stand outside the usual biopic parameters in the way that its heroine stood out from her contemporaries. “Colette” is worth seeing but when it is over, you may come away from it hoping that someone else will come along and make another film about her life and work that is truly worthy of the subject.

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originally posted: 09/29/18 01:01:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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  21-Sep-2018 (R)
  DVD: 11-Dec-2018


  DVD: 11-Dec-2018

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