How did the controversial female author in this film regain her voice in 19th century Paris?
It’s often been said that behind every great man is a great woman. While the maxim, coined in the 40s, hasn’t held up particularly well in the past 80 years – especially in light of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements – there’s still a ring of truth to it.
Eva Perón, wife to Argentine president Juan, was one of the reasons why the former army general was so popular in politics, while Alma Reville, herself a screenwriter and director, is responsible for key scenes that made her husband Alfred Hitchcock famous throughout his career. And from her workout routine to her passionate defence of her husband’s policies, Michelle Obama has become that female figurehead in modern times.
In Paris at the turn of the 19th century, the same could be said for Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.
The subject of upcoming film Colette, set for release on 6th December, the titular society woman found her way into the Parisian literary world through her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, who wrote under the pen name Willy.
An aspiring author herself, Colette was encouraged by her husband, who was plagued by writer’s block and keen to get her literary career off the ground. He was so keen, in fact, that he published her first novel, a loosely autobiographical effort on her days at school, and its three follow-sequels, under his own name.
It was probably a good thing at the time. Word of the books and their scandalous content spread through the Parisian literary salons like wildfire, and it wasn’t long before the book became a contentious bestseller.
Emboldened by her success, Colette began the fight for creative ownership over her stories, as well as her right to tell them at all in a buttoned-up society that regarded her ideas of gender and liberty as dangerous and subversive.
Although Colette never did get her husband to sign over the copyright, royalties or authorship for her novels, the experience didn’t deter her. In fact, she was only spurred on to create her own voice in the literary world, and she became a prolific author with an appetite for scandal.
It’s one of the reasons why Keira Knightley, who plays the rebellious author, was convinced to take the part.
“I think what’s interesting about these stories is that it’s such an extreme version of what women feel anyway,” she told theplaylist.net. “You know, how you feel voiceless and in these stories, the men take credit over the woman’s work; with Colette he took credit for the four novels, which is just insane when you think about it.
“That’s what I liked about it, that it’s an extreme version, but it’s a reality that most women look at and go ‘I recognise that’ in some way,” she continued. “The female voice is often obliterated by the male one, and that shouldn’t happen.”
Yet despite the fact that Colette’s tale takes place some 100 years ago, according to Knightley, we’re still having the same argument today.
“You read a script that is set 100 years ago, and it’s talking about gender politics, it’s talking about feminism, it is basically talking about everything we’re talking about right now,” she contended. “The conversation needs to keep going on, we need to figure this out, we need to keep the fire lit.”
Also starring: Dominic West and Eleanor Tomlinson
Directed by: Wash Westmoreland
Running time: 115 mins
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WORDS Camille Hogg