From the looks of the trailer for Keira Knightley's new film Colette, it would be easy to assume it's another period drama from a star whose worn a lot of corsets in her day. But, it's a different kind of period piece, a more modern one that looks at a woman who was way ahead of her time. Colette is based on the true story of feminist writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who started a sexual revolution with her first novel. Thanks to this movie, this revolutionary French writer will likely be on a lot more readers' radars, which is a very good thing once you know her story.
As the trailer shows, Sidonie-Gabrielle is tasked with ghostwriting a book for her "literary entrepreneur" of a husband, played by Dominic West, that becomes a major hit in Paris. Specifically, her book, Claudine à l'école, is a hit with young women. As he continues to bask in the fame, turning Claudine into "the most popular girl in the world" through merchandising, she begins to see how much he's taken from her. Not just her success, but her identity. She's not just a ghostwriter, she's become a ghost.
The movie, which opens in limited release on Sept. 21, looks to rewrite Colette's story by including who she really was. Not the wife of a writer but a writer on her own terms. As Missy (Denise Gough), a French noblewoman and artist, tells her, "You've done something important. All those young girls you've given them a voice. You should own up to it." And that's exactly what she does.
"You found me when I knew nothing,” she tells her husband. “You molded me to your own desires. And you thought that I could never break free. Well, you’re wrong.”
Colette is the story of a woman breaking free at a time when that wasn't very easy to do. In 1900, the real Colette penned a semi-autobiographical novel about a county girl named Claudine, following that up with three other books about the character: Claudine à Paris (1901), Claudine en ménage (1902), and Claudine s'en va (1903). Colette would later go on to write her most famous work Gigi, a novella that also broke barriers with its female protagonist who had relationships with both men and women.
But the movie is about more than her writing, it's about rebellion, both how Colette rebels against her abusive husband and how she rebels against societal norms by taking up with Mathilde de Morny, knowns as the Marquise de Belbeuf, a lesbian artist. It's Colette's writing, though, that allowed her to project that rebellious nature to the masses. “The hand that holds the pen writes history,” Knightley's Colette says in the trailer
In this case, it's the hands of the film's writers Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz that is rewriting Colette's history, which feels very current as women continue their fight to be heard in the age of #MeToo. “Her story of a man trying to shut up a woman and a woman being stifled by a man’s ego is still going on today and has been going on throughout history," Westmoreland, who also directed Colette, told Variety in January.
That's why the movie shouldn't be considered another period drama starring Keira Knightley, there's something modern about this story. It's what drew Knightley to the role, as she told Variety:
"It’s wonderful to play inspiring women and to get their stories and their voices out there. Within her writing, Colette was questioning the idea of gender and the idea of what was naturally feminine as opposed to society’s take on being feminine."
This fall, Knightley will help get Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette's story in a period film that shouldn't be lost to time. And thanks to Colette, it's unlikely it will be.