But How Gay is ‘Colette’?

· Updated on September 22, 2018

In “But How Gay Is It?”, we seek to answer the biggest questions you have about a new movie release in theaters now — including, most crucially, the titular question. Does the movie have any queer characters? Are there stories involving same-sex lovers? Which gay icons star in the film? We’re bringing you all that and more.

What is Colette? As you could likely surmise from the title, Colette is about, well, Colette, the Nobel-nominated French novelist known for works like Gigi, the Claudine series, and more. Chances are you’ve read something of Colette’s in your life, or at least seen an adaptation of her work. (The musical adaptation of Gigi most recently played on Broadway in 2015.)

Colette mostly focuses on her life before she truly became Colette, though. We see the young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette meet her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, best known by his nom-de-plume Willy. We see how Willy, for a man with a nom-de-plume, doesn’t actually do a whole lot of plumeing, as he relies on a network of ghostwriters. And we see how Colette becomes one of those ghostwriters, trapped (often literally, in a room) by her husband and forced to write under his name. Over time, she gets out from under his thumb, exploring relationships with women and even a trans nobleman, Mathilde de Morny, referred to exclusively as “Missy” in the film but often referred to as “Max” according to history.

Who’s in it? Keira Knightley, who has never met a period piece she didn’t want to star in, is the titular Colette. Knightley is strong in the role, particularly in the film’s last third, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t heartily celebrate Knightley turning in another solid period performance when we’ve seen that from her so many times. I’d love to see such a talented actress stretch a bit more. (Though considering her last major stretch, in 2013’s Begin Again, got her criticized by her director despite turning in a wonderful performance, I can’t totally blame her for wanting to stick to familiar ground.)

Dominic West plays Willy, and fans of The Wire will likely spend the first few minutes of the film going, “Is that McNulty in a beard?” He’s fine, but nothing particularly special — something I’d say about most of the ensemble, quite frankly. Denise Gough is perhaps most impressive as Missy, though I wish we’d gotten more time with her portrayal of him.

Her portrayal of him? Is this yet another case of Hollywood casting a cis woman as a trans man? Broadly, yes; Gough is playing a character with preferred male pronouns. Technically, it’s a bit more complicated. Like I said, Missy is only referred to as Missy in the film, never Max, though Colette repeatedly insists on male pronouns be used when Willy refers to him. Additionally, the idea of the real-life Mathilde de Morny as transgender is up for debate by historians, and is somewhat thorny to describe in modern terms. (Put simply, the way we talk about transness today bears little similarity to how it was discussed in the past, and applying contemporary standards to a period piece is difficult.) Still, there were frustrations with Gough’s casting, as de Morny was definitely masculine in presentation.

But how gay is it? Colette is somewhere on the bisexual scale, interested in women and having an affair with an American heiress, though obviously, considering that the film is period, she’s not given an exact label for her sexuality. There’s a lot of sex in the film, and credit where it’s due, the vast majority of it has some element of queerness to it.

Is Colette worth seeing? This is a tougher question than it usually is. On the one hand, I want to support films that center queer characters, particularly queer women, and unabashedly portray the sex of their sexuality. On the other hand, Colette is pretty boring. It is pretty horny, I’ll say; a couple of the scenes got me going in a way I did not expect when I walked into a late-19th/early-20th century period piece. But those moments don’t make up for what a relatively lazy biopic it is.

Also? This movie about a revolutionary woman writer, one who wrote about female desire in such historically significant ways, is directed by a man (Wash Westmoreland), from a script written by two men (Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer) and one woman (Rebecca Lenkiewicz). Come on.

So, you vote no? I vote “see it if the subject matter appeals to you, but don’t preference it above other films you’re more interested in.” It’s not a waste of time by any measure, but it’s just hard to recommend Colette as a must-see.

Colette is in theaters now.

This story has been updated.

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