RATING |

In the wake of recent events, the subject of female fury has been raised, and consensus is forming around the idea that society teaches women to suppress angry feelings and instead to be coolly rational, vulnerable, sweet, and apologetic.

If you say so, conventional wisdom, but it may be difficult for that notion to survive the scrutiny of anyone who's been married for more than, say, two weeks. (I kid, I kid.)

Certainly the subordinate-wife honeymoon is over rather quickly for the couple in Colette, the true-ish story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), who wrote under the nom de plume Colette, and was married to hard-partying Parisian Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a man who initially took credit for her wildly successful Claudine novels (credited with inventing the modern idea of the teen girl) under his own pseudonym, Willy.

That's pretty low, but Colette's initial fury arises from his infidelity, and his ease at lying about it. She doesn't mind the cheating (so long as she gets the privilege of doing a little of it herself), but she can't abide the deceit.

Thus she delivers to him an ultimatum, dare I say an angry one, which Knightley registers with a flush of the cheek that is a well-known part of her repertoire. In Colette, she also gets to play a not-so-familiar lustfulness. Her Colette is a sexual omnivore, and when her husband develops an infatuation with a visiting American woman (Eleanor Tomlinson from Poldark, wrestling with a Southern accent), she decides to strike first, creating a ménage à trois that became the sensation of Paris (and increases book sales tremendously).

Their contest for the woman's affections serves as proxy combat for another point of friction in the marriage. Willy is a kind of protean James Patterson and employs a stable of writers to crank out stuff under his brand. Colette tolerates this arrangement, but her books are sensations, they pay the bills (hubby gambles too much), and she grows tired of sharing the credit.

It's right and proper for vanguard feminist Colette to throw off the yoke of his paternal oppression, but it actually does not help the movie. Willy is a cad, which means that he is great fun to play, and West – who's made a specialty of such men – makes the most of this flamboyant role. He's such an appealing scoundrel that he throws the movie out of balance.

We're meant to thrill at Colette's emancipation, but when she breaks it off with wild Willy and finds true love (with Denise Gough) for the first time – built on respect and honest affection — it looks dreadfully dull.

This is unfair to the real Colette, who was a much better writer than her first husband (she ended up with three others) and who lived even larger – fearless war correspondent, actress, adventurer (and also, unfortunately, mime).

In fact, she was so fearless a breaker of boundaries that she had to be edited for modern tastes. The movie leaves out that time Colette seduced her 17-year-old stepson. Throughout her adult life, in fact, she wrote about cross-generational love affairs with frequency and enthusiasm. So she invented the modern teen girl, and possibly the cougar, and for these and other reasons was nominated in 1948 for the Nobel Prize in literature.

MOVIES

Colette

  • Directed by Wash Westmoreland. With Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough and Fiona Shaw. Distributed by Bleecker Street.
  • Running time: 111 minutes
  • Parents guide: R (sexual situations)
  • Playing at: Ritz East