To the unassuming trailer-watcher, Colette looks like a turn-of-the-century version of Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s 2014 film about Walter Keane, the American artist who claimed his wife’s paintings as his own.
Colette is married to Henry Gauthier-Villars, a similar entrepreneurial fraud who passes off her novels as his own, but this film manages to be far more than a domestic drama, something Big Eyes never quite achieved.
Set in early 20th century Paris, it captures the circus of existing in the cultural capital of the world. It wasn’t just that everything looked Art Deco fabulous, society seemed to be a whirling carousel of champagne-fuelled salons, sex parties and racy cabaret. Keira Knightley gives a spirited performance as Colette, a wide-eyed girl from the countryside dropped into the debauchery by Henry, who has quite literally made a name for himself – Willy – under which he publishes reviews, novels and plays produced by “a factory of ghostwriters”. Essentially Studio 54 with petticoats, it isn’t long before Henry ropes Colette into writing memoirs about her schooldays.
The novel, Claudine a L’Ecole, is a monstrous hit with the ladies of Paris, her name slapped across perfume bottles and bars of soap in every arrondissement. Willy doesn’t just take all the credit, though, he makes Colette cut her hair and creepily parades her about dressed up as a schoolgirl, making them a semi-fictional, semi-perverted couple celebre.
Thriving on the scandal of it all, Willy manages to coax Colette into a menage a trois and an exotic cabaret with her trans lover at the Moulin Rouge before she decides enough is enough.
Even among all this raunchiness, it’s the chemistry between Knightley and Dominic West as Willy that makes the whole charade so compelling. Both radiate intelligence and their sparring is a joy. West positively oozes charisma, making it impossible not to enjoy Willy’s company, even when he’s yelling melodramatic banalities like “This is what men do, Colette!”
Unfortunately, the script doesn’t always live up to the performances, and at nearly two hours, it’s just too long. By the umpteenth champagne-guzzling salon, we get that Paris was a Right Laugh, but does she write another Claudine or not? Rather than hurtling towards a thrilling climax, the eventual conclusion arrives like a train gently trundling into the station in time for the credits.
Top performances make this an enjoyable outing, but the script could have spent some more time on the production line.