The De-Corseting Of Keira Knightley

She Plays A Different Kind Of Dress-Up In Colette

Why does Keira Knightley keep getting cast in costume dramas? After promising supporting roles as the pretty-but-relatable girl next door in Love, Actually and Bend it Like Beckham, Knightley starred in the surprise 2003 hit Pirates of the Caribbean. Ever since then, she’s been the unlikely go-to girl for wearing corsets in The Duchess, Anna Karenina, A Dangerous Method, innumerable Pirates sequels, and an execrable Pride and PrejudiceIndeed, many of these films include pointed references to how uncomfortable corsets are. Yet Knightley keeps on wearing them, despite the fact that there was never a woman less in need of a corset, a garment designed to support the breasts (which she doesn’t have) and create a small waist (which she does).

Knightley’s svelte physique and angular features would have been considered undesirable in virtually any century but our own, making her a jarring note of modernity in a host of beautifully art-directed period pieces, most recently Colette. Despite the film’s lavish recreation of Belle Epoque Paris, we’re clearly meant to understand that Colette is a woman who’s light years ahead of her time. That’s as good an explanation as any for Knightley’s presence. Her contemporary look finally works in her favor, making her convincing as a gawky fish out of water in the sophisticated salons of the fin-de-siècle French literati.

If you prefer corsets to country music, Colette is the showbiz fable for you. An acclaimed artist whose career is on the decline falls in love with a young unknown and nurtures her talent, using her to get back on top. Soon, though, she eclipses him, as he spirals into bankruptcy and impotence. But instead of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, Knightley and Dominic West play the star-crossed stars in the true story of France’s most famous female author.

Do you like my hat?

West is Henry Gauthier-Villars, a literary entrepreneur and bon vivant who’s the toast of Belle Epoque Paris. His novels—churned out by a staff of long-suffering ghostwriters and published under the nom de plume Willy—are a profitable mash-up of literature and “spice.” Knightley is Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, his much younger (and socially inferior) wife.

The country-bred Colette helps out by ghost-writing her husband’s correspondence. But when Willy’s free-spending ways catch up with them, she mines her childhood memories for an autobiographical novel, Claudine à l’Ecole (Claudine at School). Willy provides the Sapphic “spice” and slaps his name on it. Soon their naughty-but-nice heroine is trending, turn-of-the-century-style, inspiring soaps, perfumes, and a hit play. She provokes legions of teenage girls to crop their hair and engage in saucy Claudine cosplay.

You don’t need to brush up on your French literature to enjoy ColetteLike Willy’s novels, it wears its erudition lightly, livening up the standard biopic template with plenty of spice in the form of Colette and Willy’s extramarital escapades (the third Claudine novel was titled Claudine en ménage). She experiments with lesbianism, cross-dressing, and—just as controversially—acting.

West gamely sports a pot belly and ludicrous beard as Willy, whose charisma can’t hide his brutish and buffoonish tendencies. But Knightley is hampered by a script that—like A Star is Born—forces her to share the spotlight. “No one can take away who you are,” Colette’s mother (Fiona Shaw) tells her when she considers leaving the overbearing Willy. But we, the audience, have no idea who that is. We meet Colette seconds before we meet Willy, and they’re already on the verge of marriage. When they finally do go their separate ways, the movie ends. Fin. A postscript tells us that Colette went on to publish dozens of acclaimed novels and short stories under her own name.

A coolly detached observer rather than a pugnacious mover and shaker like Willy, Colette risks fading into the background of her own story. But Knightley gives her a steely core above and beyond the one created by her foundation garments. Like Claudine, Colette is not a girl, but not yet a woman, inventing herself even as she reshapes her times in her own image. At one point, she even does sit-ups—the modern woman’s answer to corsetry.

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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