Knightley in Shining Armor: Keira Knightley Plays Sidonie-Gabr1elle Colette, the Legendary Bisexual Writer and Rule Breaker in the Queerest Movie of the Year

By Gilchrist, Tracy E. | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), December 2018 | Go to article overview

Knightley in Shining Armor: Keira Knightley Plays Sidonie-Gabr1elle Colette, the Legendary Bisexual Writer and Rule Breaker in the Queerest Movie of the Year


Gilchrist, Tracy E., The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


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 tum-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 Epoque, 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 in 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 says of her attraction to the role of Colette.

The actress, now 33, has been a favorite among 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.

"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--[to know] there are positive stories out there that she can tap into and she can feel a part of."

Still Alice and Quinceanera filmmaker Westmoreland's 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 "Willy" (Dominic West). Willy is 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. "She really defined what we see as the modern teenager, and that hadn't been defined before."

One early scene in the film portrays Colette enjoying the attention of an opposite-sex couple Gaston and Jeanne De Caillavet to the chagrin of her philandering husband. Colette chides him for his jealousy over Gaston flirting with her. It was Jeanne she found most interesting, Colette wryly explains.

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. 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, is a coming-of-age story of sorts for a writer who went on to pen classics like Cheri and Gigi.

Knightley touts Colette's inherent feminism and the writer's years-long affair with the masculine-identifying member of the nobility and artist Mathilde "Missy" de Morny (Denise Gough) with spurring Colette to set out on her own.

"Probably being with Missy, who was so unapologetic about her identity," Knightley says. "Literally, at that point, [Missy] 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. …

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