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Film / Colette

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Colette is a 2018 biographical drama film directed by Wash Westmoreland, from a screenplay by Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, based upon the life of the French novelist Colette, mostly her memoirs My Apprenticeships and The Pure and the Impure. It stars Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, and Denise Gough.

After marrying a successful Parisian music critic, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known commonly as "Willy" (West), Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is transplanted from her childhood home in rural France to the intellectual and artistic splendor of Paris. Soon after, Willy reveals that he's a "literary entrepreneur", as well as a writer; he employs numerous other writers in his "factory" and markets their work as his own. He convinces Colette to be one of them. She pens a semi-autobiographical novel about a witty and brazen country girl named Claudine, sparking a bestseller and a cultural sensation. After its success, Colette and Willy become the talk of Paris and their adventures inspire additional Claudine novels. Colette's fight over creative ownership and gender roles drives her to overcome societal constraints, revolutionizing literature, fashion and sexual expression.

Tropes used in Colette include:

  • Ambiguous Gender Identity: Missy's gender isn't clear. In fact it's discussed by Colette and Willy, where he calls them a "lady man". She protests this, insisting he use he/him pronouns for Missy, so it seems Colette at least sees Missy as a man. Missy however does not say anything definite. It's debated in regards to Mathilde de Morny, the real Missy, as well. All that can be said for certain is Missy was assigned female at birth, but always dressed as a man in adulthood, having a preference for being called Max (or Missy by close friends), with some viewing Missy as both a man and a woman (non-binary perhaps, in today's terms).
  • Arc Words: "I am the real Claudine."
  • Bifauxnen: Missy plays the western, lesbian version of this trope to the hilt. This may seem ahead of its time but is actually based on Colette's observations of Parisian queer culture in The Pure & the Impure. This was a time of gender and sexuality questioning, exploration, and experimentation for people of all genders including nonbinary/gender-fluid people (they just didn't call it that). See Oscar Wilde, Ouida, and others; also the film Henry & June, about Anais Nin.
  • Bisexual Love Triangle: Colette starts seeing Georgie. Then, unbeknownst to her at first, her husband Willy starts seeing Georgie too. When she discovers this, Colette puts them all into her next novel, to Georgie's dismay.
  • Break-Up Bonfire: When Colette finds out about Willy seeing her female lover Georgie Raoul-Duval, she puts it in her book Claudine en menage, working with Willy to change names and details. However, Georgie thinks it's inadequately disguised and there's already been enough gossip — her husband's actually threatened to challenge Willy to a duel! — so every copy of the novel is collected and burned. (Since Willy owns the copyright he can reprint the book with another publisher.) After Colette leaves him, Willy orders his typist Héon to burn the original manuscripts for her Claudine novels. As shown in the film, Héon actually saved them. He returned them to her and she later used them to win the rights back from the publisher. Héon's real name was Paul Barlet and he left Willy's employ when Colette divorced him and went to work for her instead.
  • Country Mouse: Sidonie-Gabrielle is this when she first moves to Paris, and is completely out of place at her first soiree. She adapts quickly, and loses the country mouse completely when she adopts the Colette persona.
  • Crossdresser: Missy. They are never in anything except men's clothing, even for sleeping wear. While this would not be considered a big deal now in Paris, and even at the time with artistic, "bohemian" people — again, this was an era of considerable gender/orientation questioning and broadening of ideas — it was highly controversial in "polite" society. Missy's gender is ambiguous, so are they really crossdressing? Could be subverted.
  • Double Standard: Willy says he's perfectly fine with Colette and Georgia's relationship. However, when Colette asks how he'd feel about her seeing a man, he says it would be unacceptable to him.
  • The Eiffel Tower Effect: The film itself only uses one or two slightly less well-known Parisian landmarks (though it can’t resist mentioning the in-period debate about the trope namer structure), but the poster designer just had to include the Eiffel Tower.
  • Fangirl: Willy assumes that the first Claudine novel will mostly sell to men, thanks to its erotic elements. However, it really takes off with young women who identify with the lead character, and he finds that he and Colette have quite a fangirl following — some of whom become significant characters in the film.
  • Gilligan Cut: Willy asks Colette to cut her hair to look like the public's image of Claudine. She states frankly that that will never happen. The next shot shows her with her hair cropped short. This was an extremely Important Haircut for the real Colette, whose hair had never been cut and was nearly to her ankles.
  • Girl on Girl Is Hot: The implicit homoeroticism between Claudine and other school girls in a major selling point for the books Colette writes, as Willy encourages, saying not only he but many other men will love this. After she's attracted to Georgie, a rich American woman, Willy also accepts this but makes it clear this only applies to women. Her seeing a man is not okay with him. This however is violently subverted when Missy and Colette stage an erotic act at the Moulin Rouge. Missy's ex-friends attend (who at least perceive them to be two women, whatever the true case for Missy, and start throwing objects angrily toward the stage.
  • Heteronormative Crusader: Colette and Missy's on-stage kiss offends most of the audience so much they're not only booed but driven offstage with hurled objects (100% Truth in Television). They were Missy's ex-husband's friends; he'd already divorced Missy, since he couldn't stand their cross-dressing and same-sex attraction.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: Willy tries to excuse himself having sex with other women to his wife Colette through pleading male weakness, claiming that men are just naturally weaker in terms of sexual desires than women. Colette doesn't accept this for a moment and leaves him (temporarily).
  • It Will Never Catch On: Sido expresses interest in seeing Victorien Sardou's play La Tosca with Sarah Bernhardt, but Willy dismisses it as too melodramatic and overdone. It was one of Sardou's greatest successes, most familiar to us today from Puccini's operatic adaption. Even has its own trope. Later he has the same reaction to electric light.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Willy is a selfish wannabe Manipulative Bastard and not half as clever as he thinks he is, but he has a working talent for publicity — and he’s a competent editor who seems to be genuinely important to Colette’s early development as a writer. (There's been some attempt by Colette's later biographers to rehabilitate Willy and point out his good qualities. Colette said he was actually a more talented writer than any of his "ghosts," who included some pretty gifted people besides herself.)
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: The real Colette loved and cherished her feline companions. She wrote many poems and stories with cats, so it's entirely in keeping with reality that the first image in this film is an orange cat washing itself on her bed. She would approve.
  • La Belle Epoque/The Edwardian Era: The film does a fine job of evoking an elegant Parisian version of 1890s style, segueing into the new century, complete with steam trains, Art Nouveau decoration on fashionable gentlemen’s walls, horse-drawn carriages, and period bicycles. The transition into the new century is marked by details such as new fashions, new hairstyles, and hand-written manuscripts being replaced by typewriters.
  • Les Yay: Invoked as Colette writes implied homoeroticism into her Claudine stories between school girls, which Willy finds immediately appealing, and assures her other men who read the books will too.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Colette and Georgie are both bisexual women who (mostly, in Colette's case, exclusively for Georgie's) dress in nice dresses while they largely conform to gender presentation that was expected from them overall, while having a relationship together (and with Willy).
  • Love Confession: Missy, Colette's lover, says he loves her near the end of the film. Colette just says "Thank you" in response, though Missy accepts this. Colette later mouths it when they're riding the train together later though.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Willy likes to play this part, using the people he employs to build up his literary brand (including Colette). But he’s not especially good at it; the people he uses notice the fact, sooner or later, and get angry with him.
  • Masculine–Feminine Gay Couple: Colette and Missy, though the former experiments with masculine styles at times and the latter is more of an elegant bifauxnen transvestite than a Butch Lesbian (all assuming you even see Missy as a woman).
  • The Merch: Oh, the merch. In-Universe (and in Real Life). Soap, perfume, face powder, hair oil, dresses, fans, candy, lingerie, it just went on and on. They didn't even show half the stuff you could really get with the Claudine brand.
  • The Mistress: Willy is keeping a mistress early on his marriage, until Colette makes him break it off. Later, Meg becomes his live-in mistress, with Colette's tacit approval.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title: Sort of justified: see what happens when you search for Colette in Google or The Other Wiki. (Colette was actually her surname, possibly derived from the word colet, an altar boy or acolyte, or from "Col", a nickname for Nicolas. The family seems to have had Norman heritage. On her mother's side, Colette had black ancestors from Martinique.)
  • Ms. Fanservice: Georgie is very beautiful and shown topless having sex with Colette then also Willy in a montage, providing the most nudity or sex scenes in the film.
  • Of Corset Hurts: For their first public outing in Paris as a couple, Willy tries to make Colette wear a tightly corseted new gown. Colette, a country girl, has never worn anything like this before and refuses, as she finds it too uncomfortable.
  • Produce Pelting: Friends of Missy's ex-husband begin throwing peanuts at Colette and Missy during their performance at the Moulin Rouge. This then escalates to bottles and furniture.
  • Pronoun Trouble: Willy is unsure how to address Missy, who's quite androgynous with an ambiguous gender identity, especially since in French words are strictly gendered. Colette, Missy's lover, uses he/him pronouns for Missy, correcting Willy using she/her. Missy however does not say what they prefer, at least onscreen.
  • Queer Establishing Moment: After they meet a couple, Colette admits to Willy she found the woman and not the man desirable. He's intrigued, and it's revealed American woman Georgie is also attracted to women. Willy encourages them to have an affair (they do). Before long she meets Missy, who is a Butch Lesbian and or transmasculine (always dressing in male clothing), and they have an affair too.
  • Queer Romance: Colette's relationships with Georgie (a bisexual women like her) and Missy (a crossdressing lesbian or trans masculine person) are major themes of the film.
  • Race Lift: Paul Héon (real name Paul Barlet), the typist who saved Colette's manuscripts, was actually white, but here he's played by black actor Johnny Palmer. But it's realistic to have black people in the picture (e.g., the girl in the park reading Claudine, etc.) since there were lots of black people in France, and still are today.
  • Roll in the Hay: Early in their courtship, Willy and Colette enjoy an assignation in a barn near her parents' farm.
  • Sex Montage: One is shown with Colette and Willy going to have sex with Georgie in her house alternately, which Colette's unaware of at first.
  • Sexy Schoolwoman: The late 19th C. equivalent. Willy develops a fetish for women dressed as Claudine in her schoolgirl smock.
  • Significant Haircut: Willy makes Colette cut off her long hair and get a crop like Polaire, who is currently playing Claudine on stage.
  • Socialite: The bohemian world where Willy and Colette live also has its share of wealthy characters, some of them classic socialites, who like to hang out with artists because it’s cool — notably including Missy, who comes from a very aristocratic background.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Colette is a woman whose inner voice as a writer has long been denied. She is willing to take extraordinary measures to promote the emergence of her inner voice as a new writer. Hailing from a country village, she marries a charismatic and dominant Parisian. Under his auspices, she is initiated into the bohemian life-style of Paris where her creative appetites are triggered.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Missy, who habitually dresses as a man, is portrayed positively (many people then felt differently about this however — polite, bourgeois society would condemn this while creative and many wealthy/aristocratic people were fine with it). As Missy has an ambiguous gender identity though this might not be the case.
  • You Are the New Trend: Once Polaire establishes her distinctive crop as her style when playing Claudine, it starts appearing on young women all over Paris.