Did you hear the one about the famous novelist whose books were actually written by his wife? That’s the poorly-concealed secret at the heart of the just-departed The Wife, in which Glenn Close spends two hours grinding her teeth in scenic Stockholm locations as her husband Jonathan Pryce is feted with the Nobel prize for books that she actually wrote.
But it’s also an aspect of the life of the French novelist Colette, nee Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, was a music critic and man about town in turn-of-the-century Paris popularly known by the single name “Willy.” He published 50 books under that name, though most of the actual writing was done by other writers. Willy married Colette when she was 20, a country girl from Burgundy with no dowry. She became one of his staff of writers almost by accident, her subject a semi-autobiographical character named Claudine who so enchanted Paris in four novels that Willy was able to strike lucrative merchandising deals exploiting the name.
That plot point is about all that the fine new film biography Colette, starring Keira Knightley in the title role, has in common with the drearily melodramatic The Wife. While there was much that was dramatic in Colette’s later life, this film confines itself to the period of her marriage to Willy, played by Dominic West in a performance that never takes a back seat. The film is less about Colette in particular than it is about this unusual relationship of a dozen years, during which the traditional understandings of marriage were sundered on all sides.
“Nothing is as I imagined it,” the young bride complains to her mother (Fiona Shaw) at an early stage, but her imagination is substantially expanded in the ensuing years. Willy encourages her to explore a relationship with a wealthy American woman, admitting that his own transgressions have been so numerous that it would be hypocritical of him to deny her.
As directed by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice), Colette’s exploration of her bisexual side feels so naturalistic that, when we see the infamous incident in which her onstage pantomime performance with her then-companion Missy (Denise Gough) results in them being booed off the stage, it wasn’t clear that what upset the audience was the sight of two women kissing.
And in mapping Colette’s rise from country girl to literary sensation, Westmoreland and his late partner, screenwriter Richard Glatzer, don’t feel the need to turn Willy into a cardboard villain. He may not have deserved all the credit he took, but he did shape and guide the works he published, including his wife’s. Without him, she probably never would have become who she did. Now playing at the Dipson Amherst Thater.
Although Hollywood more is more likely to grind out unnecessary remakes (including the one leading the box office this week), they occasionally get it right, taking a movie that had some good ideas and using it as the basis for something better. The hit Meet the Parents, pitting Ben Stiller against father-on-law to be Robert DeNiro, was based on a 1992 film of the same name, starring no one you’ve ever heard of. It’s wasn’t great, but some smart producer figured the same material could be done better, and did so. (Along the way, he signed an agreement with the owners of the first film never to show it again.)
As I was watching the indie comedy Chasing the Blues, I found myself hoping that someone will give it that same treatment: It would make a great story for someone like Sam Raimi or the Coen Brothers. In Chicago, two obsessive record collectors learn that a little old lady owns the only known copy of a rare blues recording form the 1940s. Not only is it rare, it has a curse: Recorded by a since-vanished musician who had just killed his girlfriend, it is said to drive to suicide anyone with murder in his heart. Their determination to get their hands on the record—and to make sure the other guy doesn’t get it—leads to a spiral of comic mayhem that lands them both in prison for 20 years, at which time both are given another chance at the disk.
Clocking in at less than 80 minutes, it’s a moderately pleasant movie that you keep wishing had a bigger budget and one more script re-write to develop more of its potential. Grant Rosenmeyer and Ronald L. Conner are adequate leads, helped by a supporting cast of more familiar faces including Jon Lovitz, Anna Maria Horsford, Steve Guttenberg and Tim Kazurinsky, all of whom must live in Chicago where this was filmed. It’s playing this weekend at the Screening Room.