There is a moment in director Wash Westmoreland’s biopic Colette when the titular character, played with perspicacious wit and androgynous sensuality by Keira Knightley, sheds the trappings of turn-of-the-20th-century Paris — the high-buttoned dress and the corset — and dons a man’s suit. With her hair already angularly bobbed in a nod to the teenager she created in her Claudine novels, Colette’s transformation is electric.
It’s also purely indicative of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s persona. The trailblazing writer engaged in relationships with men, women, and trans-masculine-identifying people circa the Belle Époque, and both her personal life and her legacy of work are legendary and radical. While the narrative of Colette takes place more than 100 years ago, the pansexual bohemian feminist who stepped out of her husband’s shadow to become the most famous female French author in the world is very of the current cultural moment of LGBTQ visibility and #MeToo feminism.
“She was exploring her sexuality. She was doing it without shame and that she was doing it unapologetically. That it was a very positive part of her life was a great sort of message,” Knightley tells The Advocate about her attraction to the role of Colette.
The actress, now 33, has been a favorite of lesbian and bisexual women since she played a brash soccer star in 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, although Colette is her first overtly queer role. And is it ever!
Knightley smiles knowingly when reminded that playing Colette, who beds a spectrum of genders, chops off her hair, and eventually sports suits, will likely make her even a bigger icon for queer women.
“Thrilled, so thrilled,” she says of the possibility of increasing her queer fan base. But there is a responsibility in playing a role that offers representation for LGBTQ people, she adds, elaborating that taking on the role of Colette is personal in some ways.
“I want my friends to have positive stories about their community,” she says. “And I want for my kid — if she identifies with that community—that there are positive stories out there that she can tap into and she can feel a part of.”
“I have no idea which way she’ll go, but…” the star of films as far-flung as Pride and Prejudice and Pirates of the Caribbean says. “I want to know that, culturally, [positive LGBTQ representation] is there, as it should be.”
Still Alice and Quinceañera helmer Westmoreland’s story of Colette follows the author from her inauspicious roots in the French countryside to becoming the toast of the Paris salons along with her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, who goes simply by “Willy” (Dominic West). A precursor to today’s internet stars, Willy is depicted as a shameless self-promoter who runs a content factory where everything is published under his name, including the wildly popular Claudine novels, which were essentially fictional memoirs with a saucy, homoerotic bent that he cajoled his wife into writing based on her girlhood.
“I think she did an extraordinary thing, which was talk about sexuality from a female perspective,” Knightley says of Claudine at School and the subsequent novels, which she’s read. “She really defined what we see as the modern teenager, and that hadn’t been defined before. I can completely see that that would have been amazing and kind of revolutionary.”
In the film, it’s in the over-the-top salons of Paris — where a bejeweled tortoise on a silver platter serves as a barely mobile decoration while androgynous mimes, poets, and opera singers woo the free-spirited crowds — that Knightley’s Colette first flirts with the limits of her sexuality.
One early scene portrays her as enjoying the attention of an opposite-sex couple to the chagrin of her philandering, jealous husband. As Colette and Willy set off in their carriage away from the gathering at Willy’s behest, Colette chides him for his jealousy over the man flirting with her. It was the wife she found interesting, Colette wryly explains to Willy, which, of course, piques his stereotypically masculine interest.
While any depiction of sexuality outside of the heterosexual norm circa 1890 is groundbreaking, not only is the film’s subject a queer woman, but the movie costars out actress Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve, Lizzie) as Colette’s mother, while trans actor Jake Graf plays the cisgender man in the couple that flirts with Colette in the salon. Meanwhile, Christine Vachon, the iconic force of New Queer Cinema and a lesbian, produced the film, which Westmoreland wrote with his late husband, Richard Glatzer, and Disobedience screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Born in 1873, Colette died in 1954 at 81. Westmoreland’s film, which begins just before she marries Willy and closes with her emancipation from him circa 1906 when she set out on the road to follow a career on the stage, is a coming-of-age story of sorts for the writer who would go on to pen classics like Chéri and Gigi.
Well-read for the role of Colette, Knightley says that Gigi was her introduction to the author’s work, although she’s also devoured the Claudine novels, The Vagabond, and Chéri.
Chéri’s “perspective of female sexuality and of aging” appealed most to Knightley, she says. “It’s unblinking and honest and unafraid. It’s that female voice and that exploration of sexuality. … She has this incredible, unflinching view of the world.”
Knightley touts Colette’s inherent feminism as part of what led her to break free from her husband, who encouraged her to write for his factory only to put his name on all of her early work and to eventually sell the rights without her knowledge (Colette eventually fought to retain authorship of the novels and won).
But the actress also credits the writer’s years-long affair with the masculine-identifying member of the nobility and artist Mathilde “Missy” de Morny (played by the marvelous Denise Gough in the film) with spurring Colette to set out on her own.
“If you read the letters between them you can see that they were deeply in love,” Knightley says, adding that she was fascinated by their love story. “Probably being with Missy, who was so unapologetic about her identity. Literally, at that point, she was wearing men/’s clothing and it was illegal. And she had the strength of character, the courage, to say 'This is who I am and this is the life I want to live.' I suspect that was a positive influence on Colette’s journey from standing out behind her husband and actually finding her own voice and her true self.”
Colette was already in the works before the 2016 election that triggered marginalized people into running for office and the watershed moment of #MeToo that changed the conversation around sexual assault forever. The film always felt “prescient,” Knightley says, especially considering that Westmoreland had tried for 17 years to get a film about a culturally fascinating and game-changing woman made, but no one in Hollywood cared.
“Nobody could have anticipated the #MeToo movement, and they certainly couldn’t have anticipated that this conversation would suddenly be happening in a loud kind of way, which I’m so happy about,” Knightley says.
“This is a really interesting, strong, fascinating person [Colette]. Why wouldn’t have people been interested in that 17 years ago?” Knightley muses. “Clearly, culturally, the women’s movement has been reignited and that helped in getting this film made because people were finally going, 'Yes, we do want to be talking about these things. We are interested in seeing this voice.'”
At the point in the film when Colette dons the suit and demands that Willy give her credit for her work, her metamorphosis into a thoroughly modern woman is complete. The actress who's uncannily inhabited classically feminine Jane Austen heroines in her day was both intrigued by Colette’s blurring of the gender binary and perfectly equipped to embody her masculine energy, given that she says, “I was a girl that had always felt that there was a very masculine side of me.”
“When I was little I always thought that I would grow up to be a man. It was because I was a very powerful little creature and all of the girls on the playground that was where the power was,” Knightley explains of her childhood worldview. “I could see outside the playground and the men had all the power. And it just made sense that I would grow up into that.”
The film ends as just as Colette has divested herself of Willy and set off to pursue a theatrical career. But it actually closes at the beginning of a life and career that would go on to resonate more than a century later as revolutionary, powerful, and important especially for women and LGBTQ people. Knightley says that she “stood tall” playing Colette and hopes that viewers will take away a “sense of empowerment” from her story.
Colette’s “was a voice that I wanted to hear. It was a voice that I wanted to speak,” Knightley says. “I particularly want women, but I want men as well to kind of go, 'Yes, I have a right to be myself, to explore my identity and my gender and to do it without shame and unapologetically.'”