“Colette,” the movie starring Keira Knightley as the tradition-smashing French writer, comes to theaters Sept. 21. It’s a well-done period biopic with a great pedigree: Director Wash Westmoreland and his late husband Richard Glatzer, who worked together on “Still Alice,” wrote the screenplay.
After its premiere earlier this year at Sundance, reviewers called the movie a “female empowerment saga” (Variety), tackling “sexual liberation, the repression of women’s voices, the power of art to change society” (ScreenDaily).
It was Colette’s own words that made her powerful. In a lifetime spanning two centuries, both chronologically and metaphorically, she wrote 50 volumes of novels, short stories, newspaper articles and drama reviews. Her novella Gigi became the basis of the Academy Award-winning movie and stage production of the same name. In 1948, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1953, she was awarded the French Legion of Honour.
Before Colette, notable women writers (Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott) tackled serious themes, but none plumbed the battle of the sexes like Colette, or portrayed so vividly daily life, both domestic and unconventional, of her time.
Here, then (while we wait for the movie to open), are 10 tips for achieving Collette-like fame.
- Find a mentor.
Colette’s first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, was a journalist and music critic who, under the name of “Willy” wrote popular novels laced with sexual innuendo. These were among a flurry of libertine books around the turn of the century, coinciding with the Art Nouveau movement, which the French called “modern style,” using the English words.
- Sex sells.
Colette’s first book began as a memoir of her schoolgirl days. Willy advised her to add a little sexual playfulness, and published the book under his name as Claudine at School. Several novels and sexual liaisons later, Claudine finds her husband in bed with her lesbian lover (a prime example of Colette’s art imitating her life).
- Keep to a writing regimen.
With the great success of Claudine at School, Willy began to lock Colette into her room for four hours a day so she would continue to write, as he continued to publish her books under his name.
- There is only one story.
All of the Claudine books, and Colette’s many other novels dwell on the eternal conflict of men and women, ‘the exhausting sexual pastime,” Colette called it. “Throughout her work, Colette insists on the fundamental difference between a woman’s experience of sensuality and that of a man,” writes Robert D. Cottrell in his literary biography, Colette.
- Find a rhythm.
Colette’s sense of rhythm and dialogue is what makes her style one of the most distinctive in French literature.
- Keep a stiff upper lip.
“While I was writing La Retraite sentimentale…,” remarked Colette, “I was learning to live. Can you learn to live? Yes, if you are not happy. Felicity teaches you nothing. To endure without happiness and not to drop, not to pine, is a pursuit in itself, you might also say a profession.”
- Develop an iconic personal style.
Colette became ill with fever, and cut her hair to feel cooler. Even after she recovered, she kept her hair short in “le bob,” the iconic haircut for unconventional women of the 1920s. Colette had several relationships with women, and took to wearing men’s clothes (a punishable offense in France at the time.)
By 1906, Colette’s marriage to Willy was ended and they separated. With no income from her own books, she joined a traveling vaudeville troupe and turned her experiences into plays and several music-hall novels, including her first major novel, La Vagabonde, the story of a divorced woman who becomes a music hall dancer. Performing in semi-dress was scandalous enough, but it was Colette’s prolonged on-stage lesbian kiss that sent Paris over the edge.
- Depend on no one.
All of Colette’s fictional men are weak, or they die, but no matter. All her novels have happy endings of blissful aloneness. In La Vagabonde, her heroine, Renee became a career woman who chose her work and self-reliance over clipping her husband’s toenails. Colette married two more times, but continued to write prolifically.
- Be kind of animals.
Colette was a famous animal lover, and said she learned the beauty and power of silence from her cat. She wrote several books featuring the wise dialogue of cats and dogs, published in translation as Creatures Great and Small.
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