How Director Wash Westmoreland Recreated France’s Belle Époque Era
Wash Westmoreland’s Colette transports Keira Knightley back in time to turn of the century France, the world inhabited by the eponymous, radical French author. Westmoreland details the influences, from film and music to Colette herself, that would help set the decadent scene.
The story of Colette (full name: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) takes place during the Belle Époque; an era of French history characterised by peace, prosperity, and a tremendous flourishing of the arts. To capture the richness of times, I looked to the legions of great artists whose work was produced in, or informed by, this period.
There are many brilliant painters of the era that influenced the look of the movie - Jean Beraud, Georges Seurat, Auguste Renoir - but the one whose work was most frequently photocopied and sellotaped to the walls of our art department was perhaps not as famous. Although considered an impressionist, Gustave Caillebotte paints in a style that was more photo-realistic than most of his contemporaries. His use of light and colour gives a vivid rendering of late nineteenth century Paris and viscerally evokes the streets on which the young Colette walked.
The subjects of his paintings are often working men going about their labours, often in various states of undress. The fact that he was clearly gay has still not made it on to his Wikipedia page.
I had the great pleasure of working with the legendary composer Thomas Ades on this film. We focussed on four great composers of the era - Ravel, Debussy, Satie, and Saint-Saens - all of whose music appears in the film. Ades’ score melded minds with these original sources with Ravel, in particular, a huge influence that evolves during the film - progressing from a late nineteenth-century romanticism to a strident, rule-breaking early twentieth-century modernism. Later in life, Colette penned a libretto for Ravel’s opera, L'Enfant et Les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells!), so they had a real-life artistic-soul connection.
Although film was obviously in its infancy during this time, through the work of Max Ophüls, who was born in the Belle Époque, we can glimpse the delicious rumpled elegance of the era. The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) was a massive influence. Its eternally roving camera, always dictated by the movements of its heroine, informed our ruling principle: “Colette moves the camera.” We shamelessly co-opted Ophüls use of internal windows (frames within frames) within urban apartments and large mirrors at the salon, reflecting endless waltzing couples behind our protagonist.
Then, in Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), we see Joan Fontaine go from a teenage girl to a full-grown society lady - everything changes; her voice, her body language, and her confidence. This provided a great model for Keira in the transition of Colette from 19 to 34 years old. As with Ravel, Colette also collaborated with Ophüls, penning a screenplay for his 1935 movie Devine.
Colette herself was the alpha and the omega of this project. The original inspiration for the story came from her brilliance, her wit, her moxie, her love of nature and her cast iron sense of self. All qualities patently visible in her writing. Although her later novels (‘Gigi’ and ‘Cheri’) are the best known, it is her early work that was most relevant for the film.
In ‘Claudine At School’ (the first novel that was published under her husband’s name) she draws from her adolescence to define the first modern teenager - feisty, opinionated, crafty and sensual. In subsequent novels she details her affairs, mainly with women, and gives insight into the evolving rules of her polyamorous marriage. In ‘My Apprenticeships’, a later novel in which she reflects on her formative years (and Willy, her husband), she gives many details of the locales, personalities and atmospheres of the demimonde. And in ‘The Vagabond’, we find her traveling around the vaudeville music halls of France with the showgirls, the acrobats, the performing dog; a single woman struggling to make ends met but performing her own art, living her own truth.
To read her is to come into contact with a tremendous original personality who lived a life still considered radical and groundbreaking a hundred years later.
Colette was a truly modern, complex woman: a libertine and bisexual, she also made her fortune from her wits and pushed back against the patriarchy. In Wash Westmoreland's (Still Alice) elegant and fizzing biopic, she is brought to life by Kiera Knightley, in one of her best roles to date.
An elegant but not sanitised view of fin de siècle Paris, we watch as Colette is seduced and married by notorious rake Willy (Dominic West). Pushed into ghostwriting novels for this charismatic cad, she uses her exuberance to push back against all constrictions placed on her in this rich portrait of a dazzling talent.
Wash Westmoreland’s Colette, starring Keira Knightley, plays on our cinema screens from Friday 11 January, 2019.