The director’s sex-forward past, however obscured, serves him well, and the result is is true to its period yet also completely of and necessary for our times.
Wash Westmoreland, the director of the new biopic of the French writer and provocateur Colette, had an excellent and relatively underreported career as a director of gay pornographic films under the name Wash West before breaking into mainstream Hollywood with such films as the indie hit Quinceañera and Still Alice, which won Julianne Moore her Oscar. The best of those pornographic films was his adaptation of The Ring titled The Hole, which showed the director’s particular talent for coaxing full-bodied performances from his actors and also for toeing the line between narrative propulsion and the delight of watching two (or more!) performers engage physically.
His porn career actually makes Westmoreland the perfect director to take on the bold, barrier-breaking, queer Colette. Because though Colette is more often than not cited for both her sexuality and the sexual frankness of her writing, what that obscures is that she was a damned good writer. In fact, she was a nominee for the Nobel Prize in 1948, and surely would have won it at some point if the institution weren’t so sexist. Westmoreland, a writer and director of obvious talent, has had to downplay his pornographic background to achieve mainstream acceptance. Yet rather than leap into sexless, heteronormative filmmaking, he has continued to make sexually aware work.
Colette takes on the life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) with gusto and an admirably feminist eye. Colette left her French Village as a young woman, practically running to Paris, where she met and married an older man (and writer), Henry Gauthier-Villars, or Willy (Dominic West). Willy refuses to let marriage get in the way of his extracurricular sex life and convinces Colette to allow an open marriage. Worse, he compels her to write under his name, explaining that no one would read work by a woman.
West, who has been excellent on stage, big screen, and small screen for years now, is excellent as a loutish but compelling figure. But the film belongs to Knightley, who despite being quite famous is chronically underrated. She knocks it out of the park as Colette. Though she looks a bit absurd in braided pigtails (the lower-budget way of de-aging an actor), she perfectly demonstrates Colette’s progression from rebellious youth to put-upon spouse to liberated woman.
While the earlier parts of the film perhaps over-indulge in Colette’s struggles, as things chug along the momentum clearly aligns with Colette’s ever-increasing agency. This is such an important message for our times, and one that is handled with period sensitivity but also modern force by Westmoreland and company. This is a particular strength of the script, which was written by Westmoreland, his late husband Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (who also co-wrote this year’s excellent Disobedience).
Colette may not change the mind of frequent Knightley critics, who for some reason find the actress’s doe-like expressions and soft voice irritating, as if eye size and vocal timbre are really something to complain about. But trust that the actress is completely true to her subject here, demonstrating both Colette’s youthful malleability and later, preternatural boldness with believability and aplomb. Westmoreland’s sex-forward past, however obscured, serves the writer-director well here, and the result is a film that is true to its period yet also completely of and necessary for our times.