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'Colette' is so much smarter than its own story

Thank heaven for sex. It is the subject that gives wit, panache and irresistible tang to "Colette," all of which were desperately needed to avoid raw preachment. The end result is a film that is far more cunning than you think it's going to be – far more complicated, nuanced and intelligent.

It's about the first 15 years of the career and first marriage of Colette, the legendary writer and sometime public scandal of French literature whose life is proof of how very different French culture is from American culture.

When Colette died at 81 in 1954, she became the first French woman to have a state funeral. She was denied a religious funeral by the church because of her divorces. Entering into that denial, no doubt, was her long life of public scandal, as the French living symbol of bisexual ménage à trois, not to mention sex and marriage considered entirely as commercial transactions.

It's that latter subject that was cutely considered in the Oscar-winning film "Gigi," based on her 1944 novella. The film was lionized in the late-1950s but, in the cold light of 21st century's #MeToo reckonings may well strike audiences as nauseating. Colette's major artistic creation in her writing life, as this film tells us, is a spotlight on the lives of "young girls between girlhood and womanhood." In our century, we're talking less about flirtations with female sophistication than male flirtations with jail. "Thank heaven for little girls" indeed.

"Gigi" is a corny American emblematic version of a Colette story about a teenage girl who is being groomed by her family for the life of a courtesan, only to be waylaid by a handsome older man (Louis Jordan) who falls in love with her. Corruption goes down more easily when it looks like Louis Jordan.

You know what the trajectory of "Colette" will be from its opening minutes when the author (played superbly by Keira Knightley) marries writer and publisher Willy (Dominic West). Willy discovers that his young wife has writing talent, so he puts her to work as just another enslaved cog in his literary "factory" (so named, just like Andy Warhol's a half century later) to produce books that will be published under Willy's supposed authorship.

You know very early on that is going to blow up in everyone's faces. Liberation and female empowerment will be had.

Not so fast. That's all very predictable and au courant. But that's when sex enters the picture – specifically adultery as a marital aid and connubial comfort in France. It's also when we meet Colette's bisexuality as the private practice of a life that she brazenly turns into a public act. In 1907 it provokes a near-riot when the writer has taken her sex life to the stage for "music hall" performance. Just so you know how very, very smart this movie is, the background music suddenly starts giving you one of the "Gnossiennes" of Erik Satie and Debussy's "Golliwog's Cake Walk." This movie knows what it's doing.

So it presents a situation not far from a classic Feydeau farce – a husband and wife both having affairs with the same woman who is a terminally bored and unhappily married wealthy woman from Louisiana. The husband knows; his wife has been fooled.

You're under no illusions that Willy is anything other than a lying, abusive and viciously exploitative S.O.B. whose entitlement is his misogyny and vice versa. When, finally, Colette turns her back to him and walks out the door, all the fool can think of to do is to bluster "Do as I say!"

There's your movie.

But it's so much smarter than that sounds. For all his philistinism, corruption and manipulation, Willy is also presented as a fellow with sound commercial instincts, no small seductive charm and a genuine ability to help his wife become an even better writer than her talent provided. If it weren't for his entitled idiot's ability to consistently spend vastly more money than his writing factory takes in, he might have been able to stretch his marriage out for decades.

He was perfectly delighted to have her finding lesbian partners and pursuing relationships with them in public. That's when this movie's wry English view of being French has the genuine sophistication that turned into the nauseating American euphemism and cutesiness baked into "Gigi." (Which, at the time, was merely considered Lerner and Loewe's sequel to "My Fair Lady.")

The casting tells you exactly how smart this movie is – Knightley as Colette, who, with every step, comes ever close to realizing that she is entitled to every bit of the fame and remuneration that her husband has commandeered. The coup of the movie is the casting of West, who embodies the seducer and the corruptor in one very messy but Gallic package.

West is a handsome, rakish actor who, on "The Affair" functions as the embodiment of instability and adultery. In "Colette," he's a cigar-smoking symbol of gender entitlement in turn-of-the-20th-century France but, by no means, a stupid or charmless one. Colette's clean break with this domestic and occupational tyrant is a real story in this movie and not just an empowerment pageant where every character is hitting marks that are clearly visible from across the street.

Nothing is that predictable here. "Colette" is so much savvier than I expected it to be that I can't help but wonder if, in some way, it's even better than it had a right to be. Kudos to one and all, I say.

Movie Review


Three and a half out of four stars

Keira Knightley and Dominic West in Wash Westmoreland's film about the early career and first marriage of the famed 20th century French writer. Rated R for subject matter, language and brief flashes of nudity. 111 minutes. Opens Friday in the Dipson Amherst Theatre.

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