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Review: Colette (Wash Westmoreland)

Keira Knightley in Colette

The pantheon of LGBTQIA+ cinema is bestowed a portrait of one of queer art's most important historical figures in Colette, a slyly subversive story of the significance of personal freedom and assertion in the pursuit of happiness and artistic authority. Keira Knightley plays Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the young wife of Parisian author Willy, and the true penwoman behind his successful novel series Claudine; their shared secret is scarcely as scandalous as the affairs each conducts with (sometimes the same) women. Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Wash Westmoreland have fashioned Colette's true story into a legend distilling the motives and purposes behind the most salient moments in her development as a person and as an artist alike, homaging this pioneering woman quite respectably, and simultaneously making of this legend a beacon to queer people today, some 64 years after Colette's death.

Alas, if a period biopic from the filmmakers of Still Alice starring Keira Knightley sounds achingly conventional to you, your fears aren't entirely wrong. Westmoreland (directing solo, following Glatzer's death in 2015) is no formal nor stylistic innovator, and his approach is more faithful to the standards of modestly-budgeted biopics than it is to the radicalism that the movie argues Colette represented herself. Colette makes a persuasive case which it can't seem to persuade itself to back, and if there's a pleasant clarity to it nonetheless, it feels like a missed opportunity. Yet there is something quietly but distinctly radical about this movie, something that emerges when analyzing it through the gaze of an inquisitive, impressionable young queer mind. Colette transgressed societal norms throughout her life, but the trajectory she took in doing so is most interesting. She used the entrapment of a toxic marriage to her advantage, transgressing in open defiance, and only then in true independence. In Colette, transgression is only possible if one has something to transgress at all, and the liberty such an act can supply is all the more piquant for being in direct contrast to its former lack - this is the development of a true artist, and emblematic of the thorniness of groundbreaking experienced by all pioneers.

Knightley has always been perfect at portraying characters evolving out of naivety and into strength and piercing intelligence; if it's a common path taken by the heroines of period pieces, it's one that she consistently manages to make seem fresh, such is the fidelity and compassion in her work. She is as earnest as the movie itself, necessarily showing us our protagonist as open to us, and to whomever she trusts, but as equally necessarily closed to everyone else. This is an intimate portrayal, then, though it bears a carefree quality that stresses accessibility throughout. There exists here a debate on whether such a style is the ideal vehicle for communicating the message of pride and liberation at Colette's heart, or intrinsically antithetical to that message's inherent specificity; either way, this is a fine, enjoyable, sensitively made movie with much to offer.

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