Movies based on real people have one job: To be at least as interesting as the lives they portray. With a woman like Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, an early-20th-century writer best known for her erotic novels, that should have been an easy bar to clear.
We join Colette (Keira Knightley), as she was more widely known, and lover Willy (Dominic West) when she's living in a small village in Burgundy, and he's her city-mouse counterpart. They marry, and he brings her to Paris, where Willy is the head of a publishing house dubbed “the Factory.” There, a team of writers crank out fiction, all of which is published under Willy's name. When the writers run dry – most notably because they have not been paid – Colette takes up her pen and produces a series of semi-erotic novels about the adventures and misadventures of Claudine, a country girl who ends up in Paris. The novels may be based on Colette's life, but Willy takes the credit.
That's a story we've seen before: A woman writer finds her voice, only to have it hidden. That's not the only tale “Colette” tries to tell, though. As she becomes more worldly, her sexual tastes begin to shift. She has a fling with an American heiress (Caroline Boulton, with the most syrupy Southern accent this side of Scarlett O'Hara), then an extended relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a member of the nobility. Missy causes scandal by wearing trousers and living a decidedly masculine life. It's unclear if she's transgender; all that's said is that there “isn't a word to describe her,” which there probably wasn't during that time in Paris.
One would think, then, that the film would be saturated with Colette's passion and desire – not only in a sexual sense, but for a life beyond what's offered to her. It's there that “Colette” stumbles. None of the relationships crackle or even seem particularly meaningful. Though West is fun to watch as the mustachioed cad with more swagger than cash, and Knightley brings some depth to Colette through knowing, dark eyes, the characters are painted with such a broad brush that there's not much room for nuance.
In the end, director Wash Westmoreland (who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Glatzer) seems unsure of what kind of movie he's making - a salacious sexual romp? A feminist story of a woman suppressed? A modern look at the spectrum of gender and the fluidity of sexuality? – and that hesitancy shows. “Colette” succeeds best when it's funny; the wry and wit we see only in glimpses recalls Oscar Wilde, just with more nudity.
Colette's story is a good one - she went on to produce multiple works under her own name, the best known of which is “Gigi”- but here it's shakily told. As a tale about a woman whose life was defined by fire, “Colette” lacks much of a spark.