“Colette”

The Belle Époque Era never looked more gorgeous than in this new period piece based on the first marriage of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The interiors are resplendent; the outside nature scenes verdant. And Keira Knightley has never been better. Add a beautiful original score and this is a not-to-be-missed film.

Colette was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, but many do not know the early story of her first husband, Henri Gautier Villars and how he acquired fame  through ghost writers. His best ghost writer was his young and talented wife, Colette. When she asked for her name to be placed on her Claudine novels, he refused. Like, “The Wife” ( reviewed Sept. 19th, 2018) woman as kingmakers  is the theme of the year, as rightly so given the manosphere times.

Director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland highlights fluid gender and has Colette’s husband, played remarkably by Dominic West, sanction Colette’s lesbian trysts as long as he profits, both physically and financially. He is quite the libertine in frequenting prostitutes and keeping creditors at bay. He sells soap, perfume, fans, and even candy under the Claudine name. “ Since when is scandal  bad thing?”, he coos. When he bends to pick up the post, he inadvertently farts to Colette dismay. “ Intimacy in all its abandon, my dear.” is his response. The writing is good.

West plays Willy, a soldier friend of Colette’s father. He romances the nineteen-year-old Colette with fawning visits and presents. One gift being a snow globe containing the Eiffel Tower. Later, Willy describes the tower as a gigantic erection that he is rather jealous of….and so it goes. Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and Westmoreland are having fun.

This is a character driven film, and Knightley is a period piece’s dream. She tells Willy that she can read him like the top of an optimologist’s chart. Colette’s mother, Sido ( Fiona Shaw) , played with great nuance after her cruel, step-mother role in the film “Lizzie”, understands her son-in-law, too. “ A mess, a profligate” , Sido ( Colette’s real mother’s name was Adele)  calls him. Willy sells the rights to Colette’s Claudine novels for a mere 5,000 francs, and Colette tells him that he has “killed our child”. We learn from the film’s endnotes that Colette never spoke to Willy again.

Cinematographer Gile Nuttgens does his magic with a cat on an unmade bed, a bejeweled tortoise, velvet sets all in candle glow. Add an original Thomas Ades’ musical score to the lushness and we have a feast of movement interspersed with the silence of writing desks and ink wells. Denise Hough and Eleanor Tomlinson are both deliciously dressed and willing consorts to Colette. I loved it as a feminist coming-of -age story.

“Disobedience”

In his first English language film, Chilean director and writer Sebastian Lelio has widened the world’s view on religion and sexuality and the tension between. From beautiful biblical poetic verses on togetherness to graphic co-mingling of bodily fluids, Leio’s work can open viewers’ hearts and minds to the pain of choice, the strictures of ritual, and the beauty of both.

Much of the story is painful. Like Lelio’s award-winning   “ A Fantastic Woman” ( reviewed Mar. 22, 2018) our protagonist must deal with rejection and derision because of her sexual orientation. Religion plays central to the role  of free will, here. In a beautiful and reverent twist, religion becomes a means of acceptance rather than a means of stricture. This is quite a coup, as is the open ending.

Our setting is an orthodox Jewish community in current London. The estranged daughter of a beloved rabbi returns for his funeral.

The action is slow and character driven. We walk through key fragments of the storyline piecemeal.  There is no false memory here. We learn that the rabbi had happened upon his young daughter and her friend in a lesbian tryst. The community clamps down, and the daughter soon leaves the country. The rabbi encourages the guilt-ridden and depressed partner to marry his rabbinical student.

From this framework, ( based on a novel by Naomi Alderman) the actors take over, and they are incredible. Rachel McAdams plays Esti Kuperman with all the earnest soulful longing of a woman tied to a passionless union with a man she respects and who offers her forgiveness.

Rachel Weisz is the outcast daughter, Ronit Krushka. One of my favorite scenes is where in the airport she  readies herself for her return to her Jewish enclave by taking the neck of her dark sweater in her teeth. She tears enough threads for it to be a garment duly rent. According to custom,  the rending is to vent pent-up anger. This dramatic expression of anguish symbolically exposes the grieving heart. Weisz’s face brilliantly captures her loss.

Alessandro Nivola is Dovid, the husband of Esti and the synagogue’s heir apparent. He is one of the most loving and sympathetic figures I have seen on-screen. Imagine Gregory Peck in “ To Kill A Mockingbird”.

All three characters are complex. Ronit is always gratifying her senses: taking a bite of brownie, smoking a cigarette, stealing a kiss. Sensual pleasures are part of her life. She is surprised by Esti and David’s marriage, hurt that her father’s obituary states that “ sadly, he left no children”. Esti, now a teacher in an orthodox school, is the one who informed Ronit of her father’s death. The rest of the shivah guests are hostile. A Mrs. Goldfarb is actually mean. “ It must be very painful for you not to have received the rabbi’s forgiveness.” The will makes no mention of Ronit, and the community is to have the house. As a famous New York photographer, she is sad that she never took her father’s portrait. Her cold reception does not dampen the fact that she wishes all to know she loved her father.

Dovid must “ keep his house in order”. Congregants make a formal complaint when they see Ronit and Esti together. Rumors fly, and Dovid tries to flush out the emotional truth of Esti and Ronit’s relationship. His anguish on all fronts is raw : “ What are you doing to us?” , “ What is wrong with you?” The three eat a meal together; they pray. The tension is controlled and calm. Then things change. Esti finds herself pregnant and suicidal.

Seven days of Shiva, a passionate sexual scene, and a speech of a lifetime are layered and tender. Freedom to choose is paramount both in this film and in life. Dovid’s , “ I do not have sufficient understanding…” will bring tears to your eyes. “Shalom” has never been spoken more deeply. This complex screenplay by Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz is top-notch as are the three main actors.

One humorous line must be mentioned for an example of much-needed, comic relief. After an afternoon of love-making ,  Ronit tells Esti that she wants to take her picture. “ For the Jewish Messenger” she adds.

“ May you live a long life” is repeated as a blessing over the course of the funeral. It is to remind us that life is short and that we only have one chance to make it matter.