Friday, September 28, 2018

Cosby, Colette, and #MeToo

The sentencing of Bill Cosby to prison on sexual assault charges is a landmark moment for the #MeToo movement. At the time the sentence was handed down in a Pennsylvania courtroom, I was watching a film about yet another woman taken advantage of by a man. But in Colette, starring Keira Knightley as a young woman coming into her own as a writer, the male/female relationship is hardly a simple one. There’s no question that Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (known to all of France as Willy), stole her thunder by publishing her best-selling early books under his own name. But theirs was not a relationship based solely on a husband’s domination of a meek little wife. Wash Westmoreland’s film is quick to point out that the situation was considerably more complicated—and more interesting.

 In this new film version of the life of the celebrated French author (who culminated a long career with the 1944 novel Gigi), there’s an early scene where celebrated man-about-town Willy introduces his new young spouse at a Parisian soiree. She stands out amid the glittering crowd in her modest dress, and a woman with a deep décolletage archly quips that Willy’s wild days are clearly over. Colette promptly rebuts this with s smile: “The wild days have just begun.”

She seems, at this moment, a naïve young country girl, not far removed from wearing her hair in two long braids. Yes, she has sexually tussled in a barnyard with the much older Willy prior to taking her wedding vows, but she seems not to realize that his concept of male privilege will keep them from ever having a partnership of equals. He’s the one with the money, the career (as a sort of self-proclaimed publishing industry), and the romantic adventures on the side. She is supposed to wait meekly at home, first writing letters on his behalf and later penning the novels he will celebrate as his own creations.

But Colette is in fact less meek than she first appears. There’s a lusty side to her that will not be satisfied with her husband’s occasionally bedroom attentions. (As time passes, it’s clear that his needs—and also his abilities—are waning.) Colette welcomes the social attentions of young men in Willy’s circle, but soon makes clear it’s their wives who have really captured her attention. In one memorable segment, she boldly answers the call of a beautiful American heiress. The thought of her lesbian liaison seems to invigorate Willy, who also takes to calling on the heiress in what’s played as a sexy roundelay. (Willy has no trouble accepting Colette choosing a female lover, but makes clear that, for his wife, male sexual companionship is entirely off-limits.)

When the four Claudine novels (written by Colette, “authored” by Willy) become a sensation circa 1900, the “wild days” predicted by Colette have definitely arrived. The books trace the life of a sheltered country girl (much like Colette herself) who experiments with love in unlikely places. The film amusingly investigates the social phenomenon that has young women all over France putting on demure, white-collared black school uniforms and bobbing their hair to match the actress who portrays Claudine on stage. What fascinates me is how Willy clings to the image of the modest and yet sexually bold Claudine, to the point of insisting that Colette (and others) impersonate Claudine in the bedroom.  It’s an odd kind of Pygmalion story . . . but one in which Colette ultimately finds a way—an unconventional way, to be sure—to have a life of her own.

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