The history of the arts, among other zones of human accomplishment, is full of mediocre men who have taken credit for the accomplishments of extraordinary women. Sometimes, the man and the woman happen to be married to each other. Film scholars have been gradually restoring the legacy of the silent-era director and producer Alice Guy-Blaché, whose trailblazing work was often misattributed to her husband. A few years ago, the movie “Big Eyes” recounted the trials of the popular artist Margaret Keane in the 1950s and ’60s, when her charlatan of a spouse passed off her paintings as his own.
We can imagine how much worse it was for female artists working in earlier, even more repressive societies. Here to prove the point — and also to complicate it, in unexpected and pleasurable ways — is “Colette,” a witty, spirited portrait of the great French writer and libertine during the early Belle Époque years of her career. It recounts the tempestuous, convention-defying marriage of Colette (Keira Knightley, very good) and Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West, ditto), better known by his nom de plume, Willy, a self-styled impresario of the publishing world who nurtured, exploited and ultimately betrayed his wife’s writing talent.
The British-born director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”), who wrote the script with his late husband, Richard Glatzer, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, treats this story as an emblematic one. The political resonance of Colette’s story transcends barriers of language, culture and milieu, which doesn’t entirely offset the awkwardness of hearing a distinctly French story performed in English. Still, after watching Knightley and West match wits and tempers for the better part of two hours, sparring with a precision and vigor that recalls the great drawing-room comedies of yesteryear, it’s hard not to appreciate the obvious benefits of this compromise.
If “Colette” is a bit too Anglicized and airbrushed to conform to strict standards of movie realism (fin de siècle France is played, well enough, by Hungary), it also resists the visual extravagance typically assumed to be the prestige costume drama’s stock-in-trade. The period trappings, which include Michael Carlin’s sleek production design and especially Andrea Flesch’s luscious costumes, supply their share of on-screen distractions, but they never feel indulgent or overpowering. Instead they serve the story’s bracingly modern sensibility, its insistence on dramatizing the injustices of the past while confronting the patriarchies of the present.
This goal, for all its unimpeachable relevance, might have left “Colette” feeling smug and self-satisfied, an exercise in shooting toxic male fish in a barrel. But there is nothing complacent or easy about the empowerment being offered up here. Westmoreland means to celebrate Colette the literary titan and bisexual pioneer, and to dissolve your initial outrage at her mistreatment in a warm bath of feel-good satisfaction. But he also wants to paint a lively, credible portrait of a genuinely complicated marital arrangement and to show how one woman’s genius could flourish even amid so much oppression and compromise.
It begins with Willy marrying the young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1893 and whisking her away from her Burgundy country-mouse parents (Robert Pugh and Fiona Shaw) to the salons and soirées of Paris. At first, Colette, as she will eventually call herself, is put off by the gossipy social circles in which her husband moves and flirts, and even more so by his chronic gambling and philandering. But as a woman of letters, she is fascinated by Willy’s bustling literary fiefdom and soon finds her place in it, first as a proofer and then as one of his ghostwriters.
In little time, she produces a novel, “Claudine at School” (“Claudine à l’École”), drawn from her own thoughts and experiences as a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Although Willy is disappointed that the book prioritizes psychological insight over narrative drive — hardly the last of his blatantly gendered assumptions — he publishes it, under his name, bien sûr. With its intimate prose and descriptions of lesbian longing, “Claudine at School” becomes a scandal and a sensation, making a fortune that Willy will quickly squander and force Colette to recoup, many times over, by cranking out one bestseller after another.
Colette ends up writing four “Claudine” novels in all, a feat that the movie glosses over in a way that will probably amuse and infuriate writers in the audience. This is hardly the first author biopic in which you learn more about the subject’s penmanship than about the nuts and bolts of her artistic process. Drafting a story or a novel may not be the most cinematic activity, but given how skillfully Knightley deconstructed a character’s intellect in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” it’s a shame that “Colette” doesn’t require her to do much more in this department than hold a pen convincingly.
The challenge, for Knightley, is to suggest a measure of Colette’s sensibility off the page, to express the uninhibited openness to life, lust and love that remains one of the hallmarks of the author’s work. And happily, this is where the picture spreads its wings, at one point working itself up into a mild but pleasing pansexual lather. As Colette rises in Parisian society and takes her first steps onto the world stage, her interest in women — emotional, intellectual, physical — asserts itself gradually at first, then with irresistible force. A fling with an heiress from Louisiana (Eleanor Tomlinson) is eventually followed by a more permanent relationship with Mathilde de Morny, or Missy (Denise Gough), a gender-nonconforming artist.
Colette’s sentimental education is a sartorial one too: Ditching her Burgundy braids and floor-length dresses for short, Claudine-esque curls and sharply cut men’s suits, she flirts with androgyny and embraces her liberation. She is free to experiment, in part, because Willy doesn’t discourage her dalliances with women (although, as he points out, affairs with other men would be a different story). And as the movie’s more diffuse, time-hopping second act tracks the growing popularity of the “Claudine” books and the author’s early self-reinvention as a dancer and mime, it is Colette and Willy’s open marriage that holds your attention and gives the story its emotional momentum.
Willy is a man of flagrant dishonesty and crude habits: Farting and belching on-screen, he’s a literal and figurative gasbag. But as faithless and manipulative as he can be, he somehow manages, at least until the final scenes, to escape the movie’s outright condemnation. West, his charisma peeking out from behind an eminently twirlable mustache and a series of fat suits, gives a performance of warm and irrepressible comic gusto. The movie’s unmistakable affection for this outsized cad suggests an honest reflection of how Colette herself must have viewed him — with exasperation and resentment, certainly, but also with tenderness and, once upon a time, desire.
And maybe, at least for a while, a modicum of grudging respect. As the movie presents it, there is something Faustian about Colette’s marriage to Willy, whose devotion to his wife is anything but unconditional; he’s the kind of man who would buy her a beautiful house in the countryside (using the fruits of her labors, of course), only to trap her in the study until she’d finished writing her next book. Some might argue that he played a role in helping unlock her talent. But as “Colette” reminds us, that talent was hers and hers alone.
Rating: R, for some sexuality/nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles