The sumptuous and sensual new movie “Colette” is really a love letter from filmmaker Wash Westmoreland to his late husband, the writer and director Richard Glatzer, as well as a tribute to the revolutionary spirit of the legendary French writer herself.
“My late husband was an avid reader. I never knew anyone who could get into books like Richard did,” Westmoreland says. “He just got obsessed with Colette. He read her fiction and started reading biographies and said there’s a film in here. Then I started reading and I agreed with him. This could be an amazing movie.”
But other projects came first, along with a serious health issue. In 2011, Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease often known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”
“For the last four years of his life,” Westmoreland says, “Richard lived with ALS which is a tremendously difficult disease. It’s very destructive to the body, but psychologically he was as strong as a rock. He never had any depression or self-pity. He just wanted to keep making movies. We made two movies during the last years of his life. The last one was ‘Still Alice.’”
Co-directed and co-written by Westmoreland and Glatzer, “Still Alice” (2014) starred Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Moore’s searing performance won numerous awards for best actress, including the Academy Award, the Golden Globe, the BAFTA Film Award and the Dorian Award from GALECA, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics.
“By the time the movie was going out into the world he was very ill. We watched the Oscars from the ICU at Cedars-Sinai Hospital,” Westmoreland says. “We snuck in a bottle of Champagne and when Julianne won we whooped so loud they thought it was a medical emergency and all these orderlies came running in. It was a nice moment, but it was an extremely difficult time.”
At the time, Glatzer was communicating with an iPad text-to-voice app that he activated with his toes. After the Oscar ceremony ended, Westmoreland asked his husband what he wanted to do next. Glatzer slowly typed out C-O-L-E-T-T-E. The movie opens next week in D.C.-area theaters.
“He died two weeks later. I knew I had to make the movie for him.”
Known to the world simply as Colette, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (played by Keira Knightley) was born in the provincial French town of Saint-Sauveur in 1873. She married Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), who wrote under the name of “Willy,” and he introduced her to the glittering literary and social world of turn-of-the-century “Belle Époque” Paris. After a tumultuous marriage with multiple infidelities on both sides, Willy and Colette divorced in 1910.
During their marriage and throughout both of her subsequent marriages, Colette had numerous affairs with women, including a long-term relationship with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, known as “Missy.” A sculptor and painter, Missy shocked Parisian society by openly having affairs with women, smoking cigars in public and dressing as a man.
Colette wrote until her death in 1953 and during her long career worked as a mime, journalist, actress and novelist. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 and is now best known for her novel “Gigi” (1944) which became the basis for the famous Lerner and Loewe musical.
“Colette lived an incredible life,” Westmoreland says. “She was really a woman well ahead of her time.”
When he and Glatzer began working on the screenplay in 2001, they decided that Colette’s first marriage would be a natural narrative for a feature film. The final screenplay, which Westmoreland finished with Rebecca Lenkiewicz (“Disobedience”), focused on Colette’s marriage to Willy and relationship with Missy, and included the publication of the infamous “Claudine” novels.
“There are so many modern elements to her story,” Westmoreland says. “He had the gift of the gab and would take over the room with an anecdote. But he really wasn’t so good at sitting down and writing an extended piece. So he hired various ghostwriters to work for him, four or five struggling writers who worked in his ‘factory,’ rather like Warhol. Willy would pitch the idea, then he would edit, and then he would sign them, but he didn’t write them. It was sham, really, but he got away with it with his tremendous energy and personality and his huge projection into the social space.”
One of Willy’s ghostwriters was Colette herself. He got her to write for him a series of four novels that became huge bestsellers and claimed he was the author.
When the Claudine novels, witty and brazen stories loosely based on Colette’s own life, became a success, Willy established himself as a very modern “literary entrepreneur.”
“Once the books were a hit, Willie was a marketing genius,” Westmoreland says. “He created a brand: Claudine cigarettes, Claudine perfume, Claudine soap and Claudine dresses. It was like ‘Star Wars’ toys; George Lucas legendarily made more money from the toys than the movies.”
In addition, Colette and Willy also become the first modern celebrity couple—the toast of the Belle Époque.
“They were like John and Yoko or Brangelina,” he says. “Willie know how to feed the public’s fascination by dropping scandalous hints about their private life into the novels. People become fascinated with it, like a modern reality TV show.”
Westmoreland says Colette was one of the first women to write explicitly about sexuality from a woman’s perspective, a notion he says was groundbreaking. He used those aspects of Colette’s story to convince Knightly to take the challenging leading role, telling her Colette was a sexual pioneer who was having sex with men, women and a male-identified woman who can be seen as a forerunner of today’s trans community.
“It was so exciting for her to take on this character who was so courageous in the way she lived her life and so honest in the way he spoke about it.”
Colette’s revolutionary spirit also inspired the casting of some of the minor roles.
Westmoreland cast actor Jake Graf, a trans man, to play a cisgender character, Gaston De Caillavet, a rival of Willly’s. He also cast actress Rebecca Root, a trans woman, to play a cisgender woman, the famous novelist and hostess Rachilde. The movie also features Ray Panthaki, who’s Asian-British, playing Pierre Veber, a member of Willy’s factory who was white in real life; and Johnny K. Palmer, a black actor, playing another white figure, Paul Héon, who was Willy’s secretary.
“This does not happen frequently in making period pieces and too rarely happens in modern narratives, as well,” he says. “Since Colette was part of challenging convention and opening up the world, it felt right that the casting of the movie should reflect that. And besides, they are just great actors.”