Locked inside the room

Zoe Mavroudi on Colette’s literature and masochism

Director Wash Westmoreland’s beautiful, discreet film, Colette, dramatises an anecdote from the great writer’s first marriage. Her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars locks Colette in his study to force her to write her second Claudine novel. As she pounds the door, he shouts he’ll return in four hours. The scene depicts him as a controlling, abusive man. That frequenter of fin de siècle Parisian salons would embellish the works of his ‘factory’ of writers with witticisms, before selling them under his nickname “Willy”. Willy had recognised in Claudine’s unexpected success the goldmine he searched throughout his illusionary career. Colette was no longer the 20-year-old village girl he married at 34 but an anonymous, unpaid worker.

In Secrets of the Flesh: a Life of Colette, biographer Judith Thurman writes that the anecdote is probably inaccurate. The couple’s home had a telephone and servants who could have let Colette out. Colette herself once said she asked to be locked in in order to concentrate. Whatever the truth, the story conveys an ambiguity, which Westmoreland underlines with eroticism. When Colette sits at the desk out of breath, anger in her eyes as she picks up the pen, it is mixed with satisfaction. The woman here unleashes her creative urge, while succumbing to the coercion of a dominant man. It’s implied that Colette’s writing was simultaneously an act of liberation and submission.

Westmoreland shows Colette in a school uniform during an awkward love scene but doesn’t delve into the costume’s symbolism. Thurman, on the other hand, traces Colette’s masochism in her anointment as ‘the unique child’ of her mother Sido. ‘Her struggle with Willy magnifies the paradoxes of her childhood,’ writes Thurman. ‘She claims sole authorship of the novels, but in the same breath disavows their aesthetic servility. She denies Willy’s role in her evolution as a writer, but complains indignantly of his total domination.’ This, she adds, was her predicament with Sido, who had ‘claimed co-title to her identity.’

Thurman examines how this mother-daughter fusion influenced Colette’s search for a partner, whose freedom to maltreat her reflected the freedom she hadn’t attained for herself. Claudine at School, a fantasy landscape of teen love tinged with lesbian and sadomasochistic dynamics, shows a protagonist in love with her female teacher, sadistic toward her weaker classmates but secretly hoping for a dominant lover. Colette won Claudine’s exclusive copyright after her divorce with Willy but continued to ponder the main conflict of their marriage throughout her 60-year career. Unrequited love is the central motif of her literature. In her novella The Cat, in which a man is dominated by a feline-maternal presence, gender roles underscore an almost animalistic rivalry. Her two-part masterpiece Chéri – The End of Chéri shows a similarly doomed affair between an ageing high-society prostitute and her young lover, whose initial rejection of her becomes his biggest regret. Stephen Frears’ gorgeous 2009 film adaptation delivered the tragic conclusion of that novel in a swift denouement. Like Westmoreland, Frears has an Anglo-Saxon’s fascination for Colette’s sensuality but little interest in the decadence and non-comformity lurking under her stories’ satin sheets. When the apprentice-prostitute heroine of Gigi (adapted into the tepid 1958 Oscar-winning musical) answers her millionaire suitor’s proposal with a defiant “I don’t want to”, she speaks for women struggling with oppression as well as their own heterosexual desire.

Westmoreland avoids a ‘feministization’ of Colette (who said suffragettes “deserve the whip and the harem”), steering his film away from politics, and from Colette’s later-life complexities. Colette’s affair with her 16-year-old step-son when she was 50 certainly would not fit current female empowerment narratives. Her public life had dark spots too, like her contribution to pro-Nazi newspapers. She eventually eluded post-war condemnation, becoming a national treasure admired by the French left, the first woman to receive a State funeral. She had become, at 81, with her much-younger husband by her deathbed, the large, imperious female of French 20th Century literature. Waifish movie stars like Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron and now Keira Knightley (who wears enhancing underwear in Colette) have not incarnated that iconic figure. But second and third acts in women’s lives – after they’ve killed the ingénue within – are multifaceted.

A film about the mature Colette might better explore the interaction between her private life and her beautiful, elusive literature. If Colette’s life constitutes a ‘female’ story, then it’s one about what women conquer in the public sphere, but also of what overcomes them when writing, locked inside the room.

Colette is available to watch online and on DVD.

Zoe Mavroudi

Zoe Mavroudi is a filmmaker and performer.