London Film Festival: ‘Colette’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 62nd BFI London Film Festival (10th – 21st October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Pihla Pekkarinen reviews the biopic of renown French novelist Colette.

The best historical dramas are ones that provide some lens for the present, to give us a way of looking at the past in order to be able to see the here and now. Colette shows promise in this realm as an exploration of gender and sexuality, but ultimately fails to deliver in the way it aims to do. And on the whole, it does not take an extensive vocabulary to describe the remarkably beige and bland tones of Colette.

The film is based on one of the most famous female French novelists of all time, who spent the first part of her life ghostwriting her husband’s most successful novels. Colette focuses on Colette’s (Keira Knightley) early adulthood and marriage to Willy (Dominic West), and the centre of gravity in this film is their manipulative and emotionally abusive relationship. Colette surprises though, by handling the subject with unusual nuance and grace. There are plenty of obvious moments of violence, such as when Willy locks Colette in her room, refusing to let her leave until she has finished writing the next instalment of her Claudine novels. But they are matched by moments of tenderness and kindness, resulting in a refreshing lack of villainization of Willy for the majority of the film. Colette stays in her relationship not because she is weak, or too in love, or any of the traditional cliches – she stays because Willy’s anger and abuse are merely a part of the relationship, not all of it, making them easier to brush off and excuse.

Colette indulges further into the theme of unconventional relationships through a half-hour sequence of both Willy and Colette’s parallel affairs. It is here where the film is at its most interesting, exploring the various dimensions of gender, sexuality, and monogamy without making too much fuss. But the film is too steeped in its central marriage to delve into this properly – everything Colette does relates back to Willy, making her affairs amusing but not particularly deep or thought-provoking, as they are probably meant to be. It’s nice to see Colette not really wrestle with her sexuality, simply allowing herself to exist, and the omission of the traditional ‘coming-out’ narrative is a relief. But without any audience commitment to the characters, the affair sequences do not come off as particularly heated or passionate. Rather, the adjective that comes to mind is “pleasant”.

The film loses itself in its third act with a bizarre detour by Colette into theatrical mime and dance, exposing the inherent problem biopics must grapple with: people’s lives don’t read like stories. Colette ends on a turning point in the titular character’s life, but in order to get there, we must follow her learning to mime. It could be argued that Colette’s venture into theatre is part of her exploration of her own potential, finding who she is outside of her marriage. But Colette does not present this as such; rather, it is an awkward diversion we have to sit through in order for the film to arrive at its natural conclusion. The film also throws away one of the striking moments of Colette’s life: the riot at her 1907 performance of Rêve d’Égypte following an on-stage kiss between Colette and her partner, Missy. Colette treats this moment as one of jealousy from Missy’s ex-husband, dismissing the riot as a display of drunk bravado from him and his friends. In reality, the incident nearly caused the shutting down of the Moulin Rouge theatre and prevented Colette and Missy from living together openly for the remainder of their relationship. To include such a pivotal moment of Colette’s life but only give it 30 seconds of screen time seems a careless choice, caused by either complete misunderstanding of or mere disregard for the moment’s gravity.

Colette is also largely uninteresting in its visuals. Usually, historical dramas are pretty much Production Design Central, but there is a shocking lack of creativity in the art direction of Colette. Again, it’s not that it is bad; the sets, Willy’s office in particular, are well decorated, the costumes are compelling enough, and Colette’s handwritten notebooks (prepared by a French calligraphy expert) are a nice touch. But compared to the visual triumphs of other recent period films (The Great Gatsby, The Shape of Water, The Danish Girl, etc), Colette falls a step behind. The design is, on the whole, convincing but unremarkable.

Colette has all the ingredients of the Academy Sweetheart, a crowd-pleasing historical drama. Keira Knightley and Dominic West deliver strong performances (though Knightley’s omnipresence in historical dramas injects her performance with a sense of deja-vu), and the narrative arc follows the pleasant structure we expect. The problem is, we have seen it all before. Colette is perfectly fine, but has nothing new to offer in the genre of biopics. Its explorations of gender and sexuality are surface-level at best, and no element of the film is striking enough to make it memorable. Colette is the film you see a poster of on the tube, make a mental note of and never end up seeing. My advice? Wait for it to come out on Netflix.


Colette will be generally released in the UK on January 11th, 2019. Check out its trailer below:


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