Keira Knightley Brings Iconic French Author to Life, in All Her Queer Glory, in Colette
While the recent Mary Queen of Scots trailer has taken up most of the period-drama attention, another period piece starring the corset queen herself—Keira Knightley’s Sundance darling, Colette—should not be overlooked. Knightly stars as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, better known as Colette, a trailblazing French novelist who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
The trailer portrays Colette’s early years married to Henry Gauthier-Villars, better known by his pen-name, “Willy.” His publication house became successful after Colette published the still-popular Claudine stories (Claudine à l’école, Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage, and Claudine s’en va), based on her school years, but published under his name.
Willy took credit for Colette’s work and basically turned her intellectual property into a phenomenon. While Colette did admit that she would never have become a writer if not for him, Willy also very much wanted to turn her into his vision of an ideal woman. Willy was fourteen years older than his wife and known for being a libertine. He introduced Colette to a world of avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles, where he engaged in sexual affairs and encouraged her to seek out female partnerships, something the movie trailer shows.
Willy and Colette eventually separated and finally divorced, but he retained the copyright for the Claudine books, leaving Colette penniless. As a result, Colette went on to do a lot of stage work and embarked on a series of relationships with other women, notably with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf (“Missy”), who she would sometimes perform with. Quite notably, on January 3, 1907, an onstage kiss between Missy and Colette, in a pantomime, caused a near-riot, and they were no longer able to live together openly, although their relationship continued for another five years.
“Missy” would be a great topic for a film herself. She was a Fench noblewoman with illustrious family connections, as her mother was rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of Nicholas I of Russia, and her father was the half-brother of Napoleon III. She was well known for her masculine dress and attitude. Missy was briefly married to a gay man, but they divorced eventually because beard marriages can be stressful. Mathilde wore a full three-piece suit (then forbidden to women), wore her hair short, smoked a cigar (scandal), and had many notable female lovers—not just Colette, but the beautiful French courtesan Liane de Pougy. Sadly, in 1944, Missy committed suicide
The casting looks fantastic, with trans actress Rebecca Root as Rachilde, another French novelist and playwright, born Marguerite Vallette-Eymery, best known for the book Monsieur Vénus, which was a scandal for all the sex-scenes, and of course, having a female protagonist seeking pleasure on her own terms. Rachilde was known for styling herself as a man and called herself Rachilde, hommes de lettres—”a man of letters.”
So, not only does it look like this movie will be impeccably acted, but it will also have a lot of lesbian, bisexual, and trans representation, as well. If this is the new era of how we’re doing period pieces, I’m here for it. LGBTQIA+ history didn’t just begin; there’s a long history that deserves to be shown in movies.
When Colette died, despite not being allowed a Roman Catholic funeral due to her divorces, she was given a state funeral, becoming the first French woman of letters to be granted this honor, and interred in Père-Lachaise cemetery, which I have visited and is lovely.
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