“I Can Read You Like The Top Line of an Optician’s Chart” – Colette: A Review

A surprisingly modern period piece, Colette is carried by its relatable heroin masterfully portrayed by Keira Knightley.

Now, there was a time where I felt oversaturated by another film starring Keira Knightley. Love Actually and the Pirates of the Carribean franchise rocketed Knightley into worldwide recognition and there came a point where I was tired of seeing her face and – moreover – tired of seeing her in a corset.

I was decidedly wrong.

It is undeniable that the success of this film rests hugely upon its leading lady here. Without a relatable and sympathetic protagonist, this film would flop.


Colette chronicles the real-life story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. We are introduced to her here as a simple country girl who is whisked away from her sedate life to Paris by a charming and older “Willy” (Dominic West). He introduces her to the party circuit in the city, but when she discovers her husband has been meeting with a prostitute in Paris (despite his constant talk of having to save money), Colette is outraged and refuses to listen to his excuses that men are the weaker of the sexes and slaves to their biological urges.

This rejection of the cultural norm is what makes Colette such an accessible heroine. She completely eviscerates his excuses and protestations that this is what is expected within Paris. When Willy claims that she means more to him than the other women in Paris, she deftly rebuts, “Have you sampled them all?”, before classily reading him to filth by informing him that he was only thinking with his penis. Colette demands that he be honest within their relationship and they return to Paris as a more cohesive unit. Temporarily. Willy’s business starts to struggle and Colette attempts to write something of her own result in Willy telling her that her book is unsellable and will not work within the Willy branding. However, this later serves to save the family’s fortunes when Claudine becomes a phenomenon.

Much of what makes this film so fascinating is the development of Colette throughout. She starts gazing at everything in wide-eyed naive optimism and develops into a formidable, creative and strong-willed woman. At first, she is content to sit back and permit her husband to take the credit and the glory for her own work – content to be credited only in private and to bring him that happiness. She develops, however, while she starts exploring away from Willy’s influence. She has an affair with a wealthy socialite (unaware that Willy is also enjoying an affair with her on alternating days) and soon develops a relationship with the gender-bending and decidedly modern “Missy” (Denise Gough), who encourages Colette to be free of Willy’s influence. Her change can be seen visually throughout the film as well. She begins the film in lots of white and lace, with long plaited hair. With the rise in popularity of the Claudine series, Colette starts to model herself after the women that she sees within her life. She starts dressing in darker clothes, more similarly to the actress playing Claudine on stage, as well as cutting her hair to match, showing a change to a slightly more sexy and self-assured Colette. While this can be seen to be pleasing for Willy, who seems to have somewhat of a fetish for the fictional schoolgirl, the display of wearing a three piece suit towards the end, modelled upon Missy shows the newfound freedom that Colette is enjoying. The woman we see demanding that Willy put her name on the novels that she wrote is entirely different to the wife who is locked in rooms and forced to write for him. We see her finally gaining agency as she continues her theatrical career and finally writing her own novel away from the Claudine brand as the film draws to a close.

A tale in which a woman breaks out from under the restrictive shackles of a man who seeks to control her is a decidedly modern tale that makes one realise that the struggles that are being faced in contemporary society are depressingly long lasting. Turns out (and I’m sure this is not too much of a surprise) that men are pretty awful. A light dash of historical – and factual – same-sex daliances only goes to show what an extraordinary woman Colette was. All of the aspects of her personality are portrayed with aplom here: clever, witty, sexy and incandescent. In every scene, Knightley practically glitters. It is impossible not to be drawn in and captivated by her performance that skates over the skilfully constructed script by Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. A delightful hisotrical on all fronts.

4.5 stars

  • Director: Wash Westmoreland.
  • Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Eleanor Tomlinson.
  • Highlights: The entire existence of Keira Knightley.
  • Zinger of the film: “I can read you like the top line of an optician’s chart”.

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