Belle Époque Paris Takes Center Stage in “Colette,” Starring Keira Knightley

Belle Époque Paris Takes Center Stage in “Colette,” Starring Keira Knightley

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Film poster for “Colette”, starring Keira Knightley

When Victor Hugo died in Paris in 1885, amid Paris’ critically important and creatively fruitful Belle Époque period, the streets of the city were flooded with mourners as his remains were carried through the street in horse-drawn carriage and brought to the Pantheon.

Hugo is one of many prominent figures who had tremendous impact on Paris during the Belle Époque period. (It is worth noting that one can visit Victor Hugo’s apartment in the Marais on Place des Vosges, where he lived from 1832-1848.)

Hugo stands out as a particularly notable person of that era, due to the far-reaching impact of his work, which still resonates today, thanks to Hollywood iterations of his work, like Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Colette, painted by Jacques Humbert in 1896. Public domain.

Hollywood is again calling attention to this bygone era, in a new film called Colette, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film stars British gem Keira Knightley. Knightley is one of many actors who compromise a formidable cast, which includes Dominic West, Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson and more. The film’s director is Wash Westmoreland (director of Still Alice and more.) In the titular role, Knightley plays real-life French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (or simply, “Colette”), who lives in the shadow of her husband (wholly unsurprising, given the time period). Colette was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. She is best known for her novel, Gigi, which has been adapted for stage and screen.

In France, women didn’t get the right to vote until 1945. During the Belle Époque period, women were forbidden from wearing pants, and had to wear dresses. Colette was a successful writer of her time, and authored the Claudine stories. She married a fellow writer, Henry Gauthier-Villars (portrayed in the film by Dominic West). In a bold and despicable move, Villars – after encouraging his wife to write – takes credit for her work.

French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Public Domain

Colette, understandably, tires of her husband’s controlling behavior (at one point, he locks her in a room and forces her to write). So, she explores relationships with other women. The script for Colette was written by Richard Glatzer and his partner, Wash Westmoreland; much like finally being able to wear pants and vote, it is evidenced that the world has come a long way from the Belle Époque, an era during which it was illegal to be gay in most parts of the world. Westmoreland and Glatzer were able to live their lives together on their terms, with marriage as an option, too. Days past, like those of the Belle Époque era, often yielded incredible art, music, literature, industry, architectural achievements, and more; however, it must be noted, that life at that time was, for many, a life of struggle, oppression, and hardship.

In Variety, journalist Peter Debruge writes of the film: “Movies dedicated to the lives of writers are typically content to court the well-read, older audiences, but director Wash Westmoreland clearly hopes that Colette’s story will appeal to and inspire young women…”

The above is worth noting, given present-day global tensions and the so-called “reckoning” unfolding now across many industries. With the #MeToo movement and its unending momentum, there is a clear appetite for stories which demonstrate the uprising of empowered females. Frankly, it’s an evergreen topic – whether it occurred in Paris two centuries ago, or in the present-day in the streets of metropolises like Paris, there’s always an audience for stories about strong, courageous women. 

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  1. Why did it take France so late, in comparison to US and England, for women not to attain right to vote until 1945?

    Thank you