The Unicorn Scale: Colette

4/9/2019

Bonjour, Unicorn readers! How goes the day? I hope this queer little column finds everyone happy, healthy, and full of  joie de vivre.

Speaking of feeling bon vivant, I thought it was a good time to focus on the recent biopic on one of France’s foremost novelists. Today we take a deep dive into the Keira Knightley biopic/costume drama, 2018’s Colette.

When I heard Colette’s life was getting dramatized and made into a major motion picture, I felt concerned. I remembered studying her in college in my Women In French Literature class and adoring her work. (To this day, she wrote the best introduction to a character I’ve ever seen – ask me in person and we’ll have a good laugh over me reenacting the scene.) I feel protective of the brilliant authoresses I got exposed to in that formative class (don’t come for Simone de Beauvoir or I will come for you). But after seeing the trailer, I felt a twinge of hope. This treatment looked like it would honor Colette’s bisexuality. Would it rise to the task, or would I get the bait-and-switch? I decided to give it a go.

Before I continue this review, I should note as always there are SPOILERS after this juncture. Also, if you are new to the Unicorn Scale and have no idea what that metric is all about, you can read all about it at the original article.

Colette focuses on the early years of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) and her partnership with her husband, a gregarious impresario best known by his pen name, Willy (Dominic West). When one of Willy’s ghostwriters flakes out, he gets the idea Colette could write about her childhood for one of his new novels. But when the novel is a runaway smash (often considered the birth of the queer YA novel), both Colette – and their marriage – start to change in unexpected ways.

WHAT I LIKED:

You know, sometimes finding good bi+ representation on screen is tricky. Some media shies away from the orientation, performs queer-baiting or gets up to the cusp without being an out-and-out representation.  And that gets frustrating. In a world of storytelling which often has characters and full arcs focusing on someone being gay or a lesbian, what’s a bi person to watch in order to feel fully seen? Everyone wants to see part of their lived experience up on the silver screen, even if it’s only part of their identity, even if they find most entertaining to be a form of escapism.

Colette answers that question, revealing the novelist’s bisexuality with vivacity and aplomb. While more typical films would shy away from showing Colette’s desires and romantic feelings towards multiple genders, Colette explores these areas head-on, using both language and images to show there is no question that Colette is bi. Nothing is shot in the shadows, but in lush color and swoon-worthy cinematography. Hell, even the same-sex scenes show realistic positions!

Colette’s script is smart and gives the authoress (and Willy) plenty of intelligent exchanges about Colette being bi. The only thing missing is actually using that term. But this is about the time the term was coined in scientific circles, so I can give a pass on this point.

Not only does Colette celebrate bi-ness, but it shows both the positive parts of this acceptance and the negative repercussions which can come from writing homoerotic experiences. We get to see Colette both be attracted to, and fall in love with, same-sex partners such as the Marquise de Morny,  Missy (Denise Gough). Willy and Colette set up a sort-of poly lifestyle once Colette reveals and writes about her bisexuality. Unfortunately, while Colette fights to keep both her partners, Willy sometimes doubts her loyalty while Missy is in the picture. This is annoying and frustrating, but sadly a common theme in the lives of many bi+ people – especially here, since Willy exploits Colette’s talents for financial gain without giving her any credit (it’s all very Big Eyes) while also manipulating his wife.

And yet I’m saying I like that feature of the story because it is real, both in historical context and patterns in bi+ history. Of course I hate seeing plagiarism and abuse in real life, and often on film, because it can be utilized as an exploitative factor. But I appreciate seeing accuracy with the bi+ experience – especially since we get to see all the joys of being queer and Colette coming into her own in this film. So I write about it here because it is the shadow in a painting that gives it depth.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

Honestly, there is so much to love about this movie, I had difficulties trying to find fault. The film strives to get decent representation of POC and also be faithful in its depiction of the Belle Epoque. And I was humming along blissfully…until the first music hall scene at the Moulin Rouge. I had totally forgotten that the show was called “Egyptian Dream.” And while it was accurate to show the number and the discord it created with the crowd, it was still super awkward to see Colette, a white woman, rise from a sarcophagus with the stereotypical Ancient Egyptian eyeliner. It may have been avante-garde for the time, but seeing this in the early 21st century feels uncomfortable, at the very least.

THE RATING:

Colette is a rare bi film that is far more entertaining than most people would believe for a biopic/costume drama. Knightley and West deliver some of the finest performances of their career. The narrative serves up one of the best examples of bi-ness I have seen recently in modern, mainstream film (not TV, which is miles ahead, as discussed in many other films). More, s’il vous plait.

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.