How Colette pushed sexual boundaries: Wash Westmoreland on his period biopic with Keira Knightley

After taking Julianne Moore to Oscar glory with Still Alice, director Wash Westmoreland is back with a dramatisation of the clandestine life of French novelist and sexual adventurer Colette. Here he tells us the world’s only now catching up with Colette.

Lou Thomas

Colette (2018)

Colette (2018)

Director Wash Westmoreland’s Colette is a period drama that supplants the stuffiness of the genre with welcome lashings of sex and gender fluidity.

Keira Knightley shines as the eponymous Burgundian naïf who marries Parisian philanderer Henry Gauthier-Villars and begins writing a series of wildly successful novels published under his own nom-de-plume, ‘Willy’. The Claudine books, semi-fictitious accounts of Colette’s young life and secret desires, take France by storm at the dawn of the 20th century, while Willy (Dominic West) continues his bed-hopping ways and tries to repress Colette’s development and sexual exploration. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who by this point had dropped her first two names, begins sexual and romantic relationships with women, including Mathilde de Morny (aka Missy), a French noblewoman known for her masculine attire and attitudes.

A native of Leeds, now living in Los Angeles, Westmoreland began his directorial career shooting gay porn films before hitting the mainstream co-directing Quinceañera (2006), The Last of Robin Hood (2013) and the Oscar-winning Still Alice (2014) with Richard Glatzer, who was also his real-life husband. We spoke to him to find out how Colette made it to the screen, the ways in which the story shocked France a century ago and to discuss how sexual politics have changed.

Watch the Colette trailer

What first motivated you to make Colette?

Colette herself. She’s a very electric personality, and when you read her work you come into contact with that immediately. It was my late husband and co-director, Richard Glatzer, who really started reading a lot of Collette around 2000, 2001, and he said, “There’s a great film in here.” We started digging and focused on the marriage between Colette and Willy as being the ideal story to tell [alongside] her origins as a writer.

Did the influence of Richard on the work make it a more emotional process for you?

Very much so. He passed away just after Still Alice came out, and we talked – before he passed – about what we wanted to do next. He died from motor neuron disease so was very limited in his ability to move, but he was typing with his toe and he said, “We’ve got to do Colette.” And so, after the first wave of grief, I focused in on the film as a way of keeping his memory alive and keeping his words alive and putting his name on the big screen again.

Was there anything in particular that jumped out of the books that made you feel “we need to get this idea across”?

The writing is very related to Colette’s life. Whatever she was experiencing at different phases in her life went on to the page with thinly disguised characters. I feel that many writers are writing these cracking stories, but they live deceptively orderly lives after them, whereas Colette was actually living a very wild, exploratory life in terms of her own sexuality and her own personal development, and she was doing it in the public arena. She was often going on the stage to do these weird performance art pieces that were declarations of her own self and her sexuality and her artistry. A lot of that goes into the books and that’s what makes them particularly fascinating and relevant for the film.

Director Wash Westmoreland on location for Colette (2018)

Director Wash Westmoreland on location for Colette (2018)

There’s a scene where Colette merely kisses a woman on stage and a riot ensues.

She kissed her girlfriend in the Moulin Rouge at the climax of the Dream of Egypt play, and it closed the play down after one night. And there’s actually a plaque outside the Moulin Rouge that you can see, that says, “Here, 2 January 1907, the Prefecture of Police were called to shut down the performance.”

She had this very strong inner compass. She grew up in the countryside with her sense of what was right, and she just went ahead and did what she felt was right. She didn’t really take much heed of society’s conventions, and I think that’s what makes her really exciting to look at now.

Colette (2018)

Colette (2018)

It’s quite interesting to see how far we’ve come in terms of the debate around gender politics and sexual difference or classification. What are your thoughts on how things have changed?

I think it really shows how ahead of her time Colette was. She really meshes with the present day because with her attitude of “This is who I am – deal with it.” The time when I was born in the UK, no one said “LGBT” – the whole issue of gay visibility was limited to things like Are You Being Served? There wasn’t much in the way of positive gay representation or ideas of rights around LGBTQ people, and that’s something I’ve been involved in, in my life.

In a way, we’ve caught up to where Colette was in 1903, when she was just writing about it, without any sense of shame, without any sense of coming out of the closet. Just this very honest, bold statement of her sexuality. She’s one of the first women to write about her own sexual experiences too. So, yeah, in many ways the world’s caught up with Colette.

Certainly when we wrote the screenplay in 2001 and we took it out to pitch it to producers, a lot of people just thought it was too out there. You know, Colette has a lover who is this woman who is very much identified in a masculine way: she dresses in men’s clothes and is often called by male pronouns and is very much a forerunner of today’s transgender community as well as today’s butch lesbian community. People were like, “Oh, that’s very niche.”

Colette (2018)

Colette (2018)

How did Keira Knightley take to playing Colette?

Her mother was a Colette obsessive when she was growing up, so already the books were around the house. And she just dove in and read all the relevant novels for that time period. We had a great process of evolving the character together.

Dominic West seems to be having a good time as ‘Willy’, too.

Dominic completely got the fun, the complexity and the Citizen Kane-like arc of this man who, for a moment, controlled the levers of culture and is really in the forefront of the changes in society. But then he comes crashing down and sinks to middle-aged impotency and dissipation as the story goes on and becomes a shadow of his former self. 

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