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Colette ***

by Ruben Rosario

A woman's struggle for authorship in a male-dominated society is given a lighthearted but nuanced spin in this frothy costume drama that gives Keira Knightley and Dominic West meaty roles as the iconic French novelist and her credit-hogging hubby.  

Is it worth $10? Yes  

She stares dumbfounded at the empty page, wondering what on earth she's going to write about. She hasn't been in Paris long, but Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette hasn't exactly been bowled over by the intellectuals her husband Henry keeps company with. The snobbery and shallowness she has to put up with makes her miss the natural beauty of her native Saint Sauveur even more. Wait a minute. The country. A girl. Pow! Just like that, Colette has found something to write about. And then Henry, the very man who encouraged her to put quill to paper, tells her no one would buy such feminine musings.

It will be a very long and arduous road for the budding author to find her voice, but “Colette,” a pert and scintillating biopic about the prolific pensmith, stage actress (and mime) makes that journey a pleasure, thanks to director/co-screenwriter Wash Westmoreland's light touch and a cast that appears to be having a ball bringing Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to life.

The City of Lights finds itself in the middle of La Belle Époque as the film gets underway. It should be a period where a budding author like Colette (Keira Knightley) could thrive, but this transplant from the countryside stands in the shadow of her husband (Dominic West), 14 years her senior, who goes by the pen name Willy. Financial dire straits leads Willy to reconsider giving “Claudine à l'école,” that story he rejected from his wife, another look. Then he realizes there's something special there. After a lenghty collaborative process, the book hits the stands in 1900, and proceeds to fly off tout de suite.

But the name in the byline is Willy, because let's face it, he's a brand and Colette is ... not. Westmoreland, working from a screenplay credited to him, his late husband (and directing partner) Richard Glatzer and Rebecca D. Lenkiewicz, traces the couple's swift rise to fame and notoriety in fluidly efficient fashion. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens' Monet-inspired tableaux, production designer Michael Carlin's colorful production design and costume designer Andrea Flesch's striking threads help viewers immerse themselves in the period.

But what makes the film's portrayal of the glass ceiling work is that the characters come before the issue of gender inequality. Westmoreland and his creative team take pains to chronicle the evolving nature of Colette and Henry/Willy's marriage. Colette's disenchantment with Willy's womanizing gives way to a more evenhanded playing field after both of them are smitten by American heiress Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson). It's emblematic of this handsomely mounted film's impish intelligence that Colette's bisexuality is depicted with casual nonchalance.

But despite its gossamer flourishes, there is no doubt that “Colette” is deeply invested in its titular character's emotional arc and the obstacles she confronts. Knightley conveys the writer's escalating anguish with the way her husband treats the creations she has ghostwritten, sending the movie into Ibsen territory, if you can imagine “A Doll's House” being adapted by Vincente Minnelli. It's a tonal balancing act that Knightley and West handle with effortless dexterity, even though, it must be noted, West is considerably better looking than the real Willy.

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If there's anything that prevents “Colette” from being a more accomplished portrait of a true Renaissance woman, aside from lensing that looks a little too digital for the time period, it's a hindsight bias with the way it handles women's rights and gender variance. Colette ends up hooking up with “Missy” (Denise Gough), the Marquise de Belbeuf, who preferred the company of women and dressed in men's clothes. Gough shrewdly plays the cross-dressing noblewoman as a quiet gentleman, but some of the scenes devoted to this narrative strand feel a tad too contemporary. The films that Westmoreland co-directed with Glatzer centered around marginal figures, such as the adult film workers in “The Fluffer” and the shunned Mexican American teenage cousins in “Quinceañera,” still my favorite from them. That commitment to the lives of those discriminated against is also true of “Colette” to some extent, but the filmmakers' depiction of same-sex relationships and transgender identity occasionally feels distractingly 21st century to this reviewer.

The film's most potent scene, set in the Moulin Rouge, cuts through all that revisionism. Colette and Missy end a provocative stage performance by sharing a kiss, sending the men in the audience into a violent furor. The visceral hatred on display at the sight of two women kissing gets under the skin in ways I wish more of “Colette” had.

But there's no denying the irrepressible charm Westmoreland sustains throughout this tasty bonbon that gives you some food for thought along with its picturesque genre trappings. Colette's story teaches us that when it comes to guarding one's creative property, love means never having to say sorry for moving on to greener pastures. The film is dedicated to Glatzer, and it's a fittingly genial tribute for an eclectic body of work he leaves behind.