Posted by on January 7, 2019 4:00 am
Categories: µ Newsjones

Promiscuous in art and love, an early adopter of weightlifting and facelifts … Colette was way ahead of her time – and no biopic has done justice to her complexity

“Ten thirty … once again I’m ready too soon.” So begins Colette’s 1910 novel The Vagabond, in the immediately compelling voice of Renée Néré, a Parisian music hall artist staring at her made-up face in the dressing-room mirror. “I’d better open that book lying on the make-up shelf, even though I’ve read it over and over again … otherwise I’ll find myself all alone, face to face with that painted mentor who gazes at me from the other side of the looking-glass …” And that, with all the introspection it would bring, would never do. But at last “the first bars of our overture strike up [and] I feel soothed and ready for anything, grown all of a sudden gay and irresponsible … From that moment I no longer belong to myself, and all is well.”

The shock of The Vagabond, even if one has read it before, is how immediate, funny and fresh it is; how closely observed, compassionate but also unsentimental, especially about the dignity and hurt, illness and poverty hidden behind the gaudy coats of Renée’s fellow cast-members; above all, how fundamentally “too soon” it feels, even now, in its supple weighing-up of the choices available to a woman who also happens to be an artist, and the costs of those choices. And one of the many striking things about Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who was born in rural Burgundy in 1873 and died in Paris in 1954, is the sheer number of ways in which she herself existed “too soon”. She wrote novels, short stories, essays, memoirs and as a journalist reported on everything from domestic violence to the front lines of the first world war, from anorexia to literature, from fashion and cooking to fake orgasms. She devised silent film scenarios, wrote a libretto for a Ravel opera, and scripted pantomimes – in which she acted. She was a successful mime and dancer, opened a chain of beauty salons (demonstrating makeovers on her daughter) and was an enthusiastic early adopter of everything from sushi to weightlifting, perms to acupuncture and facelifts. She was for a while the literary editor of le Matin, was married three times, had relationships with women – and with her second husband’s 16-year-old son. When Proust died, many called her the most talented writer France now had; others claimed she could have taken that crown while he was still alive. She was nominated for the 1948 Nobel prize and although denied a Catholic funeral (for being divorced) was the first French female writer to be given a state funeral. “In the prize ring of life,” John Updike once noted, “few of us would have lasted 10 rounds with Colette.” No film could begin to do justice to the range of her experience, so those who have attempted it – Danny Huston with Becoming Colette (1991), and now Wash Westmoreland with Colette, starring Keira Knightley – wisely do not try, focusing instead on her eventful enough late teens and 20s.

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