Monday, October 22, 2018

"CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?" PROBES THE ISSUES OF ART AND ACCEPTANCE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (copyright 2018)
Rare is a film’s protagonist as unpleasant as Lee Israel is in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? In the new movie, based on her 2008 memoir, she’s not only a bitter, down-on-her-luck writer, but she’s also an alcoholic, a slob, and rash in action and temperament. Despite authoring numerous magazine articles and three well-received celebrity biographies in the 1970’s and 1980’s, by 1992 her surliness with agents and editors had doomed her ability to make a living. This film is a ‘portrait of an artist’ in its rawest form. It is an unflattering character study, yet also one of the most sympathetic too. Lee may be ten ways to awful, but her quest to matter is palpable, both as a writer and a human being. 

As her savings dwindle, and the cost of living in New York goes up, Israel (Melissa McCarthy) cannot make ends meet. Her desire to write a biography about vaudeville star Fannie Brice is met with jeers by her agent (Jane Curtin). Israel’s attempts at office work have led to failure too, and when her aging cat takes ill, Israel sells off a personal note written to her by Katherine Hepburn to raise money for her beloved feline. The $200 she gets for it from a local bookseller is the easiest money Israel has ever made, and it turns on a light in her head. Realizing that collectors pay top dollar for such mementos, Israel is soon putting her literary knowledge to work to forge letters penned by famous celebs from yesteryear. She’s so good at getting into the mindset of the likes of Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, and yes, even Fannie Brice, that her faked letters play as if they’re genuine. Suddenly, Israel is in demand.

She doesn’t care that it’s through illegal means, Israel loves being a beloved author once again. Scrapping her Brice bio, Israel turns all of her efforts to the art of forgery, and in her mind, it is an artform as well as a cash cow. She’s able to take care of her cat, live it up some, and fuel her drinking habit that is coming very close to being alcoholism. One afternoon, while getting soused, she becomes reacquainted with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an old friend who happens to wander into Israel’s favorite bar to stoke his own alcoholic tendencies. Quicker than you can say, “barfly,” the two are thick as thieves, turning into drinking buddies and snarkily combating the cold, cruel world around them together.  

Hock is a sketchy dandy, living off the streets, lying left and right, and acting the bon vivant even though he’s mostly a poseur. Israel accepts the aging gay man, deep faults and all, and he acts in kind. Soon, she clues him in on the secrets to her income, and in turn, he starts helping her in the ruse by selling forged documents too. They live a life of debauchery, amorally conning booksellers and collectors all over town. Even though what they’re doing is criminal, you can’t help but cheer them on as it’s the only light in the lives of these two terribly damaged people who’ve only known the anguish of life dumping on them daily. 

The screenplay adaptation by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty never endorses their crimes, and always weaves in tension as each sale could be their last if they’re caught. The threat of arrest hangs over their lives as they keep conning the New York literary elite. Mostly though, the film celebrates in these two down-and-outers finding some joy in life. Both Israel and Hock are well past their prime and yet, the film argues, that doesn’t mean they should be disposable. 

Director Marielle Heller does an excellent job of ensuring that their humanity is at stake more than their criminal lifestyles. Israel isn’t written out as a novelist, the powers that be have just rejected her art. What artist cannot relate to such horrors? Every writer, actor, or painter needs an advocate, and with her forgeries, Israel has all of Manhattan as her benefactors now, and she can’t let it go. Hock becomes her ersatz muse, and the whole story becomes a twist on what it takes to be an artist and how to persevere under all of the perils that inhibit the world of someone who creates for a living.

Both McCarthy and Grant do award-winning work here. McCarthy has always indicated the seriousness underneath her clowning, and she never shirks from the ugliness of Israel’s world, be it her dumpy clothes, atrocious housekeeping, or potty-mouth. The spark that McCarthy lets return to Israel’s eyes when she starts succeeding at her new art is contagious, and we want her to keep on pulling the wool over the literary world’s eyes. Grant is always great at acerbic wit onscreen, and here the actor colors all of his character’s bitter humor with loneliness and regret. They are moving and sad, yet never maudlin. It’s a deft balancing act, and both performers understand the difference between making characters sympathetic, rather than pitiable.

Their flaws as people will start to damage even their good times, and soon, hardships return and level them, but the film never turns into the tragedy that it could have. Even during the most tear-inducing scenes, Heller, et al. lace humor into the mix and keep it on the level of a dark comedy instead of a tragicomedy. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? shines a light on how inspiration can be so quickly vanquished by the limits of commerce, and how ruthless the powerful and wealthy can be in dismissing the “have-nots.” Israel found a way to matter, even though the world had thrown her to the ash heap. She may have turned to forgery to rise again, but at least she was gifted at it. She made an art form out of deception, and it took an artist to do so.

Friday, October 12, 2018

"FIRST MAN" SALUTES THE INCREDIBLY HARD WORK OF PUTTING A MAN ON THE MOON


Damien Chazelle’s new feature FIRST MAN is an ode to elbow grease. Telling of the painstaking years it took for NASA to put a man on the moon, it is less about the glorious conquering of space and more about the tireless work involved in making it happen. Specifically, it focuses on astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his stoic patience and stubbornness while pursuing the goal. At times, the film is less about reaching for the stars and more about making it through the day and whatever cockamamie test NASA put Armstrong and his fellow pilots through. Their journey is terrifying, harrowing, and thrilling – and that’s all before Armstrong leaves earth’s orbit and sets his foot on the moon.

Watching these military-trained men continually put their lives at risk in these flying sardine cans never ceases to astound as you watch FIRST MAN. The astronauts get strapped into modules that appear to be little more than rickety buckets of bolts; vehicles so suspect that they wouldn’t pass muster at a disreputable carnival midway. In the very first scene, Armstrong is shown trying to control his airplane as it breaks through the earth’s atmosphere layer, starts to return home, then surges upwards again. His cockpit shakes like he’s a paint can being mixed in a hardware store. We in the audience are completely on edge with him. From there, we never really can trust what NASA makes him do as they seem to be flying by the seat of their pants as much as he is.

Chazelle’s approach in this kind of storytelling does two things: first, it puts us right next to Armstrong and makes us feel all the terror, nausea, and occasional euphoria that he feels. Two, it adds dimension to a story that has for too long now been taken over by mythology. We tend to regard what Armstrong et al. did as utterly glamorous. This film, more often than not, paints a picture that is a million miles away from that. Much of what they’re doing even seems foolish. How many times can we watch Armstrong vomit, get burned, and nearly crash before we start to wonder if he had a death wish? Yet, because Armstrong remains calm throughout his journey and approaches each day as if it’s an issue of problem-solving, he continues to impress NASA and those of us in the audience. It’s less about heroism and more about perseverance. 


Armstrong’s unflagging and eyes-on-the-prize disposition benefited from his years as a soldier. He dealt with rigid structure, following orders, and dealing with catastrophe in his years as a Navy pilot. Chazelle doesn’t show that backstory, but it’s there in every move Armstrong makes.  The pilot also lived through catastrophe, like when he was shot down while piloting a Grumman F9F Panther and forced to bail out mid-air. It prepared Armstrong for the experience of failing and floundering in the NASA program, turning the work into just another trying day at the office. 

The same was true as well for most of the other pilots and ex-enlisted men that NASA employed in their decade-long attempt to conquer the moon. The up’s and down’s, literally and figuratively, were all part of the vocation. The same, however, could not be said for the wives and family members of these pilots. They had to sit on the sidelines and try to understand what was going on, often with little information from their macho and monosyllabic husbands. Chazelle shrewdly puts us in their shoes too through the critical supporting performance of Claire Foy as Janet, Armstrong’s long-suffering wife. 

Foy has always used silences, and her huge eyes and jutting jaw to convey everything going on in her head. In her award-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth in THE CROWN, she made silent suffering into art. Here too Foy must dutifully sit by and watch the patriarchy make a mockery of humanity and family, asking people like Janet to go along with every risk of life and limb in her husband's work. No wonder Chazelle shows her lighting up cigarettes so often in the film. It not only calms her but becomes the raging fire that she cannot express within the confines of that world.  


At times, this movie plays as scary as most horror films. Yes, we know that Armstrong will make it up to the moon, but Chazelle and the script by Josh Singer, based on James R. Hansen’s book, do their damnedest to keep that end result in question. When Armstrong’s buddy Ed White (Jason Clarke), and his fellow astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Wigham) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) perish while sitting in the cockpit waiting for Apollo 1 to launch, it creates Herculean doubt. Watching these men trying to gasp oxygen in their claustrophobic capsule and then panic when a fire breaks out is a more terrifying few seconds than the last hour of HEREDITARY. Often, history has glossed over the reality of how these men died. Chazelle's take is more honest, making the work of these men all the more courageous and perhaps insane.  

Chazelle and Singer punctuate the needless deaths of these three men with Armstrong’s reaction as he is given the news via phone while trying to shore up support for the space program at a White House mixer. Armstrong is hardly a salesman and considers it more painful than any of his crashes. Then he gets the news of the Apollo 1 fire, and it puts his pain in perspective. Again, Armstrong is too much of the good soldier to break down, and Chazelle emphasizes that by hanging on Gosling’s shocked expression for a long time. Only when Armstrong realizes that he’s bleeding from the broken cocktail glass he crushed in his hand, do we understand that he, like his wife, cannot truly ever let it all out. 

Gosling does some of the best acting in his career here, using his sullen expressions and staring eyes to suggest a man who is never happy but always focused. His Armstrong is a man doing the work, fulfilling his job requirements, at times akin to a math student returning to a chalkboard again and again to solve a flabbergasting equation. The fame, the glory, the parades…none of that mattered to Armstrong. His work was a vocation and a calling, and as President Kennedy exclaimed, you travel into space for the same reason you climb a mountain – because it’s there. 

Still, when all the elements finally come together to land Armstrong on the moon, and he takes that first look out onto the vast plain of the planet, it is glorious. Chazelle introduces the vista in silence, letting cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s framing of the enormous lunar surface do all the work. It’s impressive without any underscore. Much of the final half hour occurs with little on the soundtrack other than Armstrong’s breathing. Sometimes Chazelle eliminates that noise too and lets the scenes of wonder play out wordlessly, taking one’s breath away in every sense of the phrase. 


Justin Hurwitz’s score, when it does fill the track, is superb. The composer introduces the harp as a solo instrument early on, and it not only enhances the film’s intimacy but becomes a cheeky commentary on the angels clearly on Armstrong’s shoulders keeping him from ruin. All of the production values are exquisite as you’d expect in a Chazelle film, and yet despite all of the 1960’s period trappings, this film never becomes a fashion show. If anything, such attributes are immaterial. This film stays tightly focused on Armstrong, keeping next to him as if the lens were an appendage. That’s important since he’s not a verbally expressive man. The intimacy of the camera more often than not becomes his interpreter as his words seldom state what he’s feeling.

Chazelle is an incredibly talented filmmaker, a magician who conjures characters and context without ever repeating a trick he's employed before. This film has a grainy look, suggesting the earthiness and grit in these ventures versus the bright, colorful visages he used in LA LA LAND to convey the dreams of artists in the land of make-believe. The one thread that connects those two films with WHIPLASH, his breakthrough film from 2014, is respect for the sacrifice inherent in doing a job and doing it well. Drummer Andrew bled for his music in WHIPLASH. Mia and Sebastian gave up their relationship to pursue their entertainment industry dreams in LA LA LAND. And here, Armstrong and all those connected with the space program sacrificed their time, some sanity, and sometimes even their lives to conquer space. 


Argue if you want about whether any dreams are worth such risks and losses, but the admiration for those who give it their all cannot be disputed. Nor can the compelling way that Chazelle et al. have told their story here. FIRST MAN soars as much when it’s staying grounded as it does when Armstrong and the dreams of the nation finally reach that far-off star.        

Saturday, October 6, 2018

REDFORD EXITS SCREEN ACTING WITH FINESSE


A month or so before THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN was released, its star Robert Redford announced that this would be his last role in front of the camera. The 82-year-old would still be open to directing and producing films, but he’d no longer act. Redford has been a superstar since 1969 when he and Paul Newman starred together in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. How fitting that in his final starring role on the big screen, he’s playing another charming bandit with a gun. 

THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN is indeed a modern western in its way, albeit one that takes place in the 80’s and 90’s. It is based on the true story of career criminal Forrest Tucker, a bank robber first imprisoned for larceny in 1935 when he was just 15. For the next 69 years, until his death at 83 in 2004, Tucker was in and out of jail over 30 times. He may have spent a majority of the best years of his life behind bars, but he never turned into a hardened criminal. Instead, the veteran criminal had a carefree, breezy spirit, enjoying robbing banks with little more than his smile, kind manner, and suggested threat of a gun in his coat pocket. He lived off of his spoils, albeit never too extravagantly, and he even married three times and had two children. Tucker was so good at keeping his robberies hidden away from the rest of his life that none of his wives knew of his criminal behavior until they were informed by the police after his arrests. 

Such a charming rogue is tailor-made for Redford, who’s always brought a relaxed devil-may-care quality to most of his screen roles. As he aged and slowed down some, he became even more laidback, and he fits Tucker like a hand in a stolen glove. Filmmaker David Lowery understands that and the tone of the film he wrote and directed here matches Redford’s style. The film is a lighthearted comedy, never too dramatic or too intense, and it seems to mostly laugh at how smoothly Tucker glides through it all, getting away with it and learning little from his transgressions. Lowery wants us to laugh too, and we certainly do.

Tucke even quietly boasts about his 'profession' when he picks up a senior motorist named Jewel (Sissy Spacek, as sweet and down-to-earth as she’s ever been onscreen). He stops his car on the highway next to her broken down vehicle, and she thinks he is acting "The Good Samaritan.” What’s he really doing is hiding in plain sight from the cops who were chasing him after he committed yet another robbery. When Tucker invites Jewel to join him for coffee at a local diner, he all but confesses his life of crime to her. She laughs, thinking that this old timer must be talking through his hat. (It's actually a battered brown Fedora which gives the old man even more of a cowboy appearance.)

The two senior citizens start a courtship, with Tucker acting the constant gentleman, and it's not a ruse. He genuinely feels for her, and she likes him back just as much. In many ways, this film is all about stealing, even in its B story. Tucker takes money from banks and a precious Jewel in his downtime. He steals ours too. 

Redford may be 82, but he looks at least a decade younger. He's still fit, focused, and sounds virtually the same as he always did. He’s craggier, sure, and the lines on his face give away too many horse rides in the Colorado winter, but his hair still is boyish as it flops over onto his forehead. (Where's Barbra Streisand to brush it back when you need her?) 

Assisting Tucker in his criminal adventures are aging colleagues Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits). Not surprisingly, Teddy is getting too old for this shit, and taking a bullet in his side during one bank getaway is there to prove it. Waller, on the other hand, has turned into a continually complaining 'grumpy old man.' Tucker manages to keep them together and prosperous with his positive attitude and carefully constructed heists that lower their risks. He expertly cases each bank, virtually walking in and out in mere minutes, with no one the wiser to the fact that the bank is being robbed. 

The only one who's onto them is Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Hunt is an eagle-eyed cop, and he picks up a pattern in the crimes of Tucker's locations and soon puts the pieces of the puzzle together. Even so, while working doggedly to stop the crimes, Hunt manages to work up an admiration for his opponent. Tucker likes him too and appreciates the attention. And it's not like he hasn't been caught before, right?

Casting Affleck in the role is one of Lowery’s clever little coups as you couldn’t imagine a more low-key actor playing opposite the always understated Redford. Eventually, Hunt's pursuit will catch up with Tucker, and the gig will be up when Jewel's home is visited by the cops. Still, throughout it all, we root for Tucker. We're not going to cheer for the banks ever. And having Redford in the role, well, it conjures up the sympathy that many still have for Sundance getting gunned down at the end of that 1969 classic.

When THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN ends, don’t be surprised if there are tears in your eyes. It’s sad to think that Tucker’s reign did eventually end. Even more despairing is the realization that this is probably the last time one of cinema’s most celebrated screen presence will walk in front of a movie camera. We'll just have to satiate ourselves with his brilliant canon, including such high-water marks as THE CANDIDATE, JEREMIAH JOHNSON, THE STING, THE WAY WE WERE, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE NATURAL, OUT OF AFRICA, SNEAKERS, INDECENT PROPOSAL and ALL IS LOST. (Just to name a dozen.) If this is indeed it for Redford, the man has picked a fitting finale that showed off his cleverness and cool. I hope he'll return, but if he doesn't, this small treasure will become another one to savor over and over again. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

"A STAR IS BORN" SPAWNS A NATURAL BORN FILMMAKER AND LEADING LADY

Original caricature by Jeff York of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A STAR IS BORN. (Copyright 2018)

A STAR IS BORN yet again and this time so is a natural born filmmaker. Actor Bradley Cooper not only headlines the fourth version of the perennial love story, but he makes his directorial debut as well. It's a stunning accomplishment. You'd expect an actor to be great at coaxing superb performances out of his cast, but Cooper shows a shrewd understanding of pacing, the employment of sound and music, and every other technical aspect to turn the film into art. It may be the most auspicious debut of an actor behind the camera since Robert Redford won an Academy Award for 1980's ORDINARY PEOPLE. Don't be surprised if Cooper's name is called from the stage come Oscar night in 2019. 

As if all of that isn't extraordinary enough, A STAR IS BORN also serves as the feature film debut of music superstar Lady Gaga. She is no less a marvel here, eschewing the theatricality of her stage persona and holding the screen entirely with her natural looks and talent. Whether she’s belting out a song with her powerhouse voice or listening carefully to others in the scene, Gaga turns her inaugural performance into one of the year’s most winning characterizations.

Gaga plays Ally, a singer/songwriter struggling to get her big break while working in a hotel to make ends meet. Her life changes when she meets country rock superstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) in a drag bar. She’s performing there, and he’s stumbled in looking for a nightcap after he downs a bottle of booze in his limo after a concert. Maine may be an alcoholic whose taste for showbiz is faltering, but he comes to life when he hears Ally shake the rafters channeling Edith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose.” 

They chat about show business and writing songs, and each is drawn to the other. Then Ally sings a fragment of a song she’s working on and Jack, as he prefers to be called, is smitten. In his direction here, Cooper displays a deft touch. He lets the couple’s conversation build for the better part of 20 minutes of screen time, not shying away from the pauses and awkward silences that occur between them. He’s also very generous with Gaga, letting her dominate their scenes together.  

Jack can’t get enough of Ally and loves looking at her unvarnished, natural looks. (She was made up to look like Piaf in the bar.) He reluctantly says goodnight to her but sends his driver the next day to retrieve her to join him in another city for a concert. While he’s onstage, Jack starts singing Ally’s song, adding his own melody to it and giving it a bridge. He invites her onstage, and she belts it out for the stadium audience just like she did for him when they first met.

Soon, they’re falling in love, touring together, and Ally starts performing her own songs on stage, some with Jack and some alone. Her star is on the rise, and all is well. Jack’s manager, his long-suffering older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), likes Ally, and her dad (Andrew Dice Clay) digs Jack for his fame and his down-to-earth affability around his daughter and friends. Paradise is not long for this world, however, as Ally’s rise is meteoric and Jack’s addiction to booze and pills starts to seem him descend. If you’ve seen the other versions of “A Star is Born,” you know where the story is going, but what makes this so fresh is the smart, modernized script by Eric Roth, Will Fetters, and Cooper, and the savvy and sensitive direction by the latter throughout. 

So many showbiz stories come off phony and even na├»ve in their presentation of it, but not here. Cooper nails the rush of performing in concert and the scale of it in the very first scene. The backstage scenes feel authentic too, even a traumatic one at the Grammy’s. Most importantly, Cooper keeps his film intimate, mostly filling his frame with the star-crossed lovers. He gives quality screen time to the supporting players, including Dave Chapelle as Jack’s oldest friend, but he keeps his focus on Ally and Jack. 

Cooper and his writers do one other extraordinary thing here – they take some precise and savage digs at the MTV and American Idolization of the music industry. The villain of A STAR IS BORN is an arrogant British manager (Raz Gafron), who clearly suggests Simon Cowell, as he attempts to mold Ally into a red-haired, auto-tuned, dancing fembot to make her more “commercial.” It sours Jack even more on showbiz and the script is on his side. He may be battling demons, including his diminishing hold of the spotlight, but he knows the difference between singing and selling. 

Ally knows he’s right too and never feels comfortable in the Ariana Grande/Demi Lovato mode. As she becomes more and more famous, the singer/songwriter yearns to yield more control over her art. It helps to draw the audience to her and Jack, seeing that both of them are too smart for the room, even if they’re forced to play the games in it. That’s especially true with Jack who is never quite the total train wreck as this character has been portrayed in previous films. Jack remains self-aware throughout and is strong enough to go to rehab and thrive. Wisely, the script also shows him making amends with his brother and Ally for all the consternation he’s caused them. 

Both leads do incredibly nuanced work, and while Gaga’s performance is incredible, so is Cooper’s. He cleverly channels Sam Elliott in his craggy, lived-in voice, and he shuffles around like a man in pain from his past and his peccadilloes. Jack may be too tired to lift his feet and sometimes his chin, but his eyes are still alert, brazenly blue, and intent on all that he focuses on, especially Ally. Cooper has shown incredible range as an actor over the course of his IMDB.com resume and here he proves, once again, to be one of our finest leading men. Cooper's even a terrific singer and could probably make a living at that too if he desired it. (Let's hope he concentrates on acting and directing.)

A STAR IS BORN even delivers an outstanding soundtrack. A number of people have written songs for the movie, including Gaga, and almost all are melodic and memorable. (Gaga may win an Oscar for Best Actress and Best Song for the soaring ballad “Shallow.”) Matthew Libatique’s handheld camerawork deserves special mention too, as he gets the audience close to the action in every scene making us feel like flies on the wall. And Cooper breaks our heart onscreen and off. His last 10 minutes of screen time will not leave a dry eye in the house. But there’s nothing maudlin or crass about how this film works our emotions. It feels genuine and sensitive in every moment. Cooper has approached directing this using the same gaze Jack gives Ally – one filled with focus, admiration and absolute awe. That’s a lot of love, and you’ll look at A STAR IS BORN the same way.        

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

"COLETTE" TELLS A JOYOUS TALE OF FRANCE'S MOST PROVOCATIVE FEMALE AUTHOR

Original caricature by Jeff York of Keira Knightley in COLETTE (copyright 2018)
Keira Knightley may have a reputation as the queen of corsets, suggesting a stuffiness to her work in the many period pieces she’s played, but her performances couldn’t be farther from that characterization. In THE DUCHESS, she infused Georgiana with a Princess Diana-style defiance of palace protocol. In A DANGEROUS METHOD, her Sabine Speilrein reveled in her outrageous perversity. Now, Knightley has taken on the role of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in the new biopic COLETTE, and she shines once again. She inhabits the role fully, bringing all of the character’s sexuality, ideas, and appetites to glorious life. 

In fact, the whole film feels modern despite taking place in the late 19thcentury. Not only is Colette presented as a living-in-the-moment woman who continually challenges the patriarchy, but the film is infused with an energy more akin to contemporary storytelling. Director Wash Westmoreland, and his co-screenwriters Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, never let any dust settle on this tale, even if it did take place over 120 years ago. Rather, they infuse it all with utter immediacy, from the snap, crackle, and pop of its pithy dialogue to the crisp clip of its editing. Colette was a woman ahead of her time, and the film strives to feel as modern.

At times, this film has a similar flavor to the kind that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn used to make together. Colette banters with her husband with a rat-a-tat delivery that gives the film joie de vivre, even during those moments where she challenges and angers him. He is successful Parisian author Henry Gauthier-Villars (the ever-roguish Dominic West), known by his pen name “Willy” and he’s both excited by Colette’s aggressiveness and intimidated by it. 

Willy was older than Colette by 14 years when he married her in 1893, and they became intense friends, lovers, and rivals during their 13 years together. Many things challenged their love for each other throughout the course of their marriage, starting with Willy’s propensity to frequent prostitutes. Colette is offended by his wasting of money as much as his inability to rouse for her when he comes home, but soon, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. She too steps outside of marriage, only Colette is more progressive as she takes on female lovers.

At first, Colette’s lusty affair with the American Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) excites Willy as he begs his wife for juicy details. Soon, however, he is driven to compete with Colette, not wishing her to have the upper hand. He starts an affair with Georgie too, and it pushes Colette to turn elsewhere and keep him on the defensive. Soon, the competition between them will start dominating their relationship, particularly when Willy needs Colette to bail him out of his debts. He implores her to start writing novels to earn money and in doing so, she becomes a far greater storyteller than he ever was.

Colette, despite some fits and starts, turns out to be natural at penning her feelings, probably because she’s living out loud as one who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and live her life. Soon, her prose is being read throughout the city, with its citizenry delighting in her POV and blunt truth-telling about her history, marriage, and lust for life. It all turns French society on its ear as her tomes become landmarks of feminine expression and frank sexuality.

What makes it almost comedic is the fact that female authors were rarely published back then, so her work must be done under Willy’s name. The success of the books makes the couple rich and famous, even though Colette cannot claim authorship. But the more she steps out in public and draws the spotlight, the more the denizens of France start to question whether a man could write such a candid and complex female perspective. 

Then, as Willy relies on Colette for more and more stories about Claudine to stoke his reputation and earn money quicker than he can spend it, Colette's stories about Claudine reflect her maturation and growing away from the need for men. In fact, Colette's own biography becomes almost a mirror image for her alter ego's. Colette starts to taste freedom, power, and being untethered to Willy, and so goes Claudine in her stories. 

Soon, Colette starts to flex her muscles more, voicing her opinions in public and living as open and provocatively as Parisian men. She pushes norms, sexual boundaries, and welcomes rumors that she’s the actual author behind the bestselling novels. One of the cheekier visuals in the film is how as she steps out more, Willy’s gut juts out more too. If he can’t equal her talent and chutzpah, by God, he’ll at least push her back with his stomach’s girth. 

Westmoreland subtly mines similar metaphors throughout. When Colette and Willy ride a tandem bike together, Colette does all the pedaling. The man locks his wife in a room to force her to write for him, and a small, statue of him on the desk is dwarfed as she starts scratching out another masterpiece. And when she wears a man’s suit, it’s tailored to her feminine measurements and cuts a more handsome silhouette than he does in his clothes.  

Colette is leaving Willy in her wake, even becoming involved in a love affair with Missy, AKA Mathilde de Mornay, (Denise Gough), a wealthy noblewoman. The secret author also starts an acting career and earns her own living on stage. Throughout it all, COLETTE more and more becomes a serious film about feminism, despite its frothy spirit. It is remarkably political, focusing on issues of equality and male oppression at every turn, yet the film never takes on a tone of helplessness or depression. Instead, Colette continually rises throughout, no matter what obstacles present themselves. That which does not kill her makes her stronger. 

Knightley rises too, becoming even more and more strong in her performance and eclipsing a formidable talent such as West. And while she barely shows a naked breast as Colette, her vivid sensuality is palpable throughout. She uses the tilt of her head, the curl of her lips, and the wicked side-eyes she casts to show how feline a presence Colette is, basking in all of her wily ways. At one point, Colette cups her lover’s face in her hands and Knightley makes it so boldly passionate, it's startling. In many ways, it as lusty and ribald as most of the explicit scenes in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR.

Every element of the movie feels equally as vivid, and Knightley’s take on the material. Thomas Ades’ score is always in motion, surging with lush strings. The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and the production design by Michael Carlin are so yummy, you’ll want to devour them. And Andrea Flesch’s exquisite costumes underline Colette’s carnality, rather than constrict it. 

Perhaps COLETTE could have delved into some parts of her biography that were not as joyous. Her troubled relationships with her daughter and stepson never come up. The film also is stingy with her prose. (Show us even more how she writes and what she says!) And Willy certainly was more of a scoundrel than a bon vivant, but this is a film that dares to rejoice in Colette’s liberation rather than dwell on such overt negativity. This is a movie that celebrates joy just as Colette did despite her continually trying circumstances. It's a fitting tack to take and makes COLETTE one of the season's brightest entertainments.