Keira Knightley on playing a fin de siècle feminist

PUBLISHED: 14:00 14 January 2019

Keira Knightley in Colette. Photo: Lionsgate.

Keira Knightley in Colette. Photo: Lionsgate.

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JASON SOLOMONS talks to the British actor about her new film, her admiration for the pioneering Frenchwoman it is based on and why all her best parts are in period dramas.

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Keira Knightley and Dominic West star in Colette. Photo: Lionsgate.Keira Knightley and Dominic West star in Colette. Photo: Lionsgate.

French writer Colette is perhaps not as well-known internationally as her most famous character, Gigi, from her 1944 novella of the same name. That work become a hit Broadway play in 1951 (for which Colette personally selected an unknown Belgian actress called Audrey Hepburn for the lead) and then an Oscar-winning musical giant in 1958 under the direction of Vincente Minnelli, with Leslie Caron in the lead. “Ah yes,” I hear you say, “I remember it well…”

Gigi is a young Parisienne being groomed for life as a courtesan but she cleverly plays her cards right and turns the tables on society to secure a marriage to socialite Gaston (Louis Jordan in the movie). And if another of Maurice Chevalier’s numbers in that musical – Thank Heaven For Little Girls – probably seems creepily outdated these days, the status and name of Colette herself is about to receive a boost for the new age of #TimesUp and #MeToo feminism.

Keira Knightley, in her best role for quite a few years, plays the titular Colette in a sumptuous, smart new biopic that focuses on the early years of the young provincial writer’s marriage and growing celebrity once she moved to Belle Époque-era Paris.

“I just loved her,” says Knightley of her character. “Her strength, her bravery and the fact that the world didn’t fit her so she ripped it apart and made it fit her. I found her incredibly empowering.”

Knightley’s Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette is just 20 when, in 1893, she marries the Paris publisher and sophisticate Henry Gauthier-Villars, known simply under the nom de plume of Willy. He had great success as a publisher, getting a team of writers under him, including Colette, who penned him four instant hits, the Claudine series of semi-autobiographical novels about a country girl making her way in the salons of Paris. The books become literary sensations, selling in their thousands, a practical franchise that spawned Claudine merchandise, hair cuts and fashions.

However, as the new film shows, Willy’s publishing contract denied Colette any authorship, forbidding her name to appear on anything attached to the Claudine she had created and penned. Everything was under his name. The film even shows him shutting his new literary golden goose in her room for hours until she comes up with the next hit.

Knightley admits: “What I liked is that underneath, it’s all gender politics, sexual politics, female empowerment, which are terribly serious issues to explore and yet in this instance, it’s still fun. I mean that era in Paris history is so seductive and louche. Pick an era you want to go back to in French history and it’s that one – there’s lots of sex and it feels very modern, very now. And this couple are becoming the equivalent of the first celebrity couple in the city.

“So despite him being a cad and a scoundrel and treating her like s**t, you still want to go to dinner with them. They’re both very charismatic and magnetic. You want to hang out with them, drink wine, dance on tables.”

It’s amid this backdrop of bohemian and artistic decadence that Knightley’s Colette – herself seduced by the new brightness in the City of Light – fights back against her marriage’s creative and sexual constraints – and the film becomes really interesting.

While Willy maintains his form as a libertine, Colette strikes up relationships of her own, first with a wealthy Louisiana dilettante (Eleanor Tomlinson) and then with a French aristocrat called Missy (played by Denise Gough), who dresses as a man. Meanwhile, she begins a battle with Willy to have her work as an author recognised, a fight he intends not to lose for the sake of his publishing fortune.

It marks yet another period film for Knightley, who earned Oscar nominations for Pride and Prejudice in 2006 and The Imitation Game in 2015, as well as a BAFTA nomination for Atonement back in 2008.

“Yes, but that’s where I get offered the best parts,” she says. “I get juicy, meaty women roles in period pieces, where it seems to me the female characters are trying to break out of corsets, or whatever costume that particular society dictated. So I’ve always seen these parts as a chance to tussle with the period.

“I see it as a clever way to look great in the costume but to be bigger than it, to own it, not be owned by it. Also, period clothes look better than just a jeans and T-shirt, don’t they?”

She adds that to bring the film into a more modern light, the whole cast went for a more contemporary style. “Despite the period, the acting was a sort of American naturalism vibe, not a stiff, literary style… we all wanted to explore that modernity, so that the action and the dialogue, the arguments, felt like they were happening right now, because in a sense that’s exactly what is happening now, at least in terms of the discussion around women finding their voices and in terms of people forging their own sexuality.”

Director Wash Westmoreland is from Leeds, although he has spent the last 20 years living in Los Angeles. His last film, Still Alice, earned Julianne Moore a Best Actress Oscar for her role as a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. Since then, Westmoreland’s writing, directing and life partner Richard Glatzer has died from ALS (motor neurone disease) and he has had to continue alone on this long-gestating project to bring Colette to the big screen.

“It was about 17 years ago that my partner Richard hit upon Colette, her biographies and novels, and we decided to concentrate the movie on her early years struggling to find her own voice,” he tells me. Colette’s life after Willy included acting, musicals, mime, journalism, many more novels (Gigi, The Cat, Vagabond and Cheri are among the best-known) and two more marriages, until her death in 1954. She was buried in Père Lachaise, after a state funeral – she was the first French woman of letters to be accorded such an honour.

“What we liked was that she was so brazen,” he says. “What she wrote about drew from her own life, and she lived very large and it was all out in the public eye. Maybe her real life was even more interesting than what was on the page but she always sneaked elements of it into her work. I mean, her affairs with women were no secret romances – her sexuality was everywhere.

“She was trailblazing and doing what she felt was natural, not what was dictated to by society. And in this period in turn-of-the-last-century Paris, the lines were blurring, people hadn’t quite drawn up what was yet accepted or even what terms should be used to label people. It was a very fluid era.

“It wasn’t like London because they didn’t have the shackles of the uptight Victorians,” he continues. “The fascination of our research shows there was permission for sexual experimentation along with the artistic awakening, even in the visible society. Here you have a heterosexual, conventional marriage on the surface which then has this queer explosion in the middle of it.

“Sometimes LGBT cinema is seen as being something away from the mainstream but we always felt it should be right in the middle, and with Colette, we could achieve that.”

Watching the movie, you mightn’t realise you’re seeing a slice of queer film, but it is certainly in tandem with a dominant theme of being out in the open, with one’s art, one’s sexuality. Westmoreland adds: “Colette was one of the first to actually write about a women’s sexual experience in literature, and it was part of the deal that Keira really took that on in the role – the fact that Colette, right, was a sexual explorer.

“Its modernity is striking, particularly in the current climate of women fighting, certainly in the film industry, to have their voices heard. Plus there’s this affair with Missy, who identifies as a male and is definitely an early forebear of today’s trans community and butch lesbian community.”

Westmoreland even credits Colette with inventing the character of the teenager. Her Claudine character that becomes such a popular phenomenon in the film was the first time a young lady “between girlhood and womanhood” had been given centre stage.

He adds: “Thousands of women across France bought the book and said for the first time: ‘Claudine, c’est moi!’ The word teenager didn’t enter the lexicon until the 1920s, but it was Colette who first identified the boldness, the sexuality, the freedom of this new demographic.”

The film is partly produced by Britain’s Stephen Woolley and his partner Elizabeth Karlsen, who will be awarded a BAFTA next month for their lifetime contribution to British film. One of their most recent successes was Carol, the film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, about a wealthy American woman embarking on an affair with a downtown Manhattan shop girl. Woolley also produced The Crying Game, a 1992 film containing one of the first big transgender moments in mainstream cinema.

“This is another exploration of women finding their truth,” Woolley says. “And that’s what appealed to Keira immediately. It’s quite hard for actors to find parts that actually speak to them, to what they’re looking to say artistically and Colette seemed to be in Keira’s DNA. It’s very important to her as a big British star, maybe our biggest, that she takes parts that speak to audiences in 2019 and she found that in this script.”

Although the film drips with Parisian fin de siècle atmosphere, it was actually shot in Budapest (“It looks more like Paris now than Paris does,” according to Woolley) and boasts a mainly British cast, including Dominic West, who donned a fat suit to play Willy.

“But we also wanted it not to look perfect,” says Woolley. “The director was very insistent about that, that Colette was about breaking through conventions. So the costumes all had to look lived-in, worn, fraying.” They’re designed by Andrea Flesch and based on portraits of the era by painters such as Vuillard and Beraud, as well the many early photographs of celebrity Colette herself. “Early on, Colette arrives at a big party and has toothpaste stains on her dress, and in later scene, she puts her toe right through her stockings,” says Woolley. “That’s the perfect symbol of what Colette was all about: breaking through the trappings of glamour, to define her own kind of liberation, her own style.”

If it features one of Knightley’s best performances, it also carries an emotional resonance for the director Westmoreland. He and his partner Richard Gratzer didn’t go to the Oscars in 2015 to watch Julianne Moore win for her role in their film. He cracks with emotion as he recalls the moment: “By the time of the Oscars, we were caring for Richard in an intensive care unit in LA, and had to watch on TV, but Richard was thrilled for Julianne. He knew her success would give us the platform to get some projects made that we couldn’t manage before.

“I asked him what we should do next. And, even with his ALS practically paralysing him, he could still type with one toe. He just tapped out the word C-O-L-E-T-T-E. He passed away a few weeks later.

“I knew I had to make this film, then, as way of grieving for him, of staying close to him and to extend his legacy as an artist, say the things with Colette that he wanted to say. It was as if he was on my shoulder all the way through making it and hearing these actors speak the words he’d written, with all the wit and the intelligence, just reminds me at every moment how funny he was, how obsessed with reading and literature. I couldn’t imagine a better tribute.”

Westmoreland’s final hope is that the film inspires a renaissance in the author Colette’s own work. “She was feted in France, some even said she was the country’s greatest living writer, and that was while Proust was still alive. Her books had a bit of a revival in the feminist movement of the 1970s, but I think she was so ahead of her time it’s only now that we’re about ready for her. It’s only taken 120 years for the world to catch up with her.”

Colette is released in the UK on 
January 11

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