In 2001, following a trip to France to see the places early 20th-century French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette lived and worked, writer/director Wash Westmoreland wrote the script for Colette in just ten days. “It only took 16 years after that to make the film,” he said at Deadline’s Sundance Studio.
The film–starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West–follows Colette’s first marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy–a Svengali type who encouraged her to write, and then took credit for her extremely popular work. Westmoreland also depicts her resulting awakening and refusal to bow to oppressive societal rules.
“In a way the project was ahead of its time when I was pitching to people and saying, ‘Oh and then Colette gets this lover who’s this woman who’s completely male-identified and she’s kind of a forerunner of today’s trans community,’” Westmoreland said. “I’d just get this completely blank stare from development people. That was 16 years ago and now of course that’s something people are very interested in.”
For Knightley, the story was intriguing. “I think my first introduction would have been Gigi, the musical, and then I got obsessed with Cheri and The Last of Cheri,” she said of Colette’s writing. “I didn’t know anything about the first marriage, and her husband taking credit for her work, so I find it fascinating, the whole thing.”
“History hasn’t been very kind to him,” West added of his character, Willy. “He’s now known as the guy who stole Colette’s talent and art, and that’s what we’re hoping to disseminate with this film.”
For Westmoreland, Colette and Willy were very much an iconic celebrity couple of their time, like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “The modern example of it would be Kim and Kanye,” he said. “Through their marriage you see a lot of the issues that were happening around gender, and the changes that were happening between men and women are reflected through their marriage.”
The Deadline Studio is presented by Hyundai. Special thanks to Calii Love.