Keira Knightley thrives in period pieces. It’s an indisputable fact — the star of “Pride & Prejudice,” “Atonement,” “The Duchess,” “The Imitation Game” and “Anna Karenina” (to name a few) knows how to play an endearing, headstrong woman who speaks her mind while wearing gorgeous costumes reflective of her film’s time period. But in “Colette,” Knightley’s performance draws from another item on her resume — the undeniable queerness of her breakout role in 2002’s “Bend It Like Beckham.”
While a message of “Bend It Like Beckham” might have been that women aren’t de facto lesbians because they’re athletic, Knightley exuded queerness in her teenage performance — a fact she’s even acknowledged. And now as Colette, her character’s burgeoning queerness — and its corresponding, increasingly gay outfits — is on full display. Knightley seems natural in the titular role, bringing Colette to life through a performance that’s brilliantly subtle, except for when it intentionally isn’t. She shines in Colette’s deliciously overt moments of desire, when she gives elegant women — and later, the historically genderfluid and/or transgender Mathilde de Morny, or Missy (Denise Gough) — uncompromised eyes of desire.
Through “Colette,” director Wash Westmoreland tells the story of arguably the most famous female French author of all time. After marrying literary entrepreneur Willy (Dominic West) near the turn of the century, Colette moves to Paris with him, and they come into a state of financial distress, leading to Willy’s encouragement of his wife to write about her school days. The ensuing product — “Claudine à l’École” — was published under Willy’s name and became a smash success, for which Willy took all credit.
As Colette’s protagonist, Claudine, becomes a franchise — she’s merchandised and theatricalized — Willy forces Colette to write more and more, going so far as to lock her in a room until she meets his demands. But as she comes into her own as a writer, she begins to realize who she is: an intelligent and talented woman in a society in which women are not allowed to wear trousers; a queer woman in a society in which an onstage same-sex kiss leads to a theatrical production’s closure.
Herein lies the most powerful message of “Colette” for LGBTQ+ persons: when you come into your queer identity, you come into your own. As Colette acts upon her queer desires and weaves them into her work, she become more assertive, more powerful and more decisive about she wants in life.
While the LGBTQ+ films of today are, by and large, overwhelmingly white and cisgender in focus — and “Colette” is no exception — the film makes notable strides toward diversity, both within its narrative and behind the scenes. Westmoreland cast two actors of color and two actors who are transgender to play white, cisgender historical figures, though all four are admittedly marginal characters. The film not only tells a real-life queer woman’s story, but it also deeply imbues Colette’s queerness into its framework.
In fact, Colette’s sexuality is what allows the film’s narrative to unfold. Her queer identity is what allows the audience to get to know Colette and her associations and aspirations. While the male gaze that seems to always shape cinematic depictions of female sexuality is personified at times by Willy, the camera treats her queer desire as natural — of course it’s sexy, but it’s also human. Her out-of-bedroom exchanges with her queer lovers are just as compelling as the converse.
The script was originally pitched to production companies back in 2002. While its rejection 16 years ago may come as no surprise, it’s a blessing in retrospect — if they couldn’t make “Bend It Like Beckham” queer that year, the cinematic landscape of 2002 likely couldn’t have given Colette’s queer identity the centrality and respect it deserves.
This is epitomized by one scene, set toward the end of the film. Colette corrects Willy, telling him to refer to her lover Missy by he/him pronouns, and the moment feels undeniably contemporary while notably taking place a century ago. Westmoreland’s depiction of Colette, and the grace with which Knightley plays her, is more than refreshing — it’s a model for today’s queer cinema.