Art imitates life imitating art based on life in Wash Westmoreland's bustling Colette, a Belle Époque dish of scandal, style and eventual liberation. Its subject, the novelist Colette (played by Keira Knightley), conceived of the original It girl, Claudine, who came of age in four once-scandalously sensual novels published in the first four years of the last century. Claudine took lovers, men and women, and, outside of the books, became a Parisian phenomenon, inspiring young women in fashion and mores. Colette's libertine character inspired her creator, too. Or so insists Westmoreland's film, which parades merrily through parlors and theaters, country houses and the Moulin Rouge — and finds Colette slowly moving in life toward the passions she depicted in fiction.
Of course, nobody knew at the time that Claudine was hers. Colette's husband, the enterprising author and publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars, or "Willy," published the Claudine stories under his name. The choice was so natural for him that, onscreen, the characters don't even really think to discuss it. A heartily whiskered Dominic West plays Willy, and in the film's first half he and Knightley make for a thornily comic duo, but with him dominant. Colette writes for him, even when she's not inclined to, and after the first Claudine proves a sensation, he literally locks her in a room to knock out pages.
The film finds Colette striding into a modernity few around her are ready for, including Willy. As her marriage opens up, and Colette begins to take lovers of her own, Knightley summons up a moving sense of both relief and recklessness. This Colette is thrilled suddenly to have new options, but she's committed to pushing for more.