Colette might start like any other period piece – elegant costumes, severe accents and, of course, Keira Knightley. But as this story unfolds, the genre is turned on its head.
What starts as the tale of a woman responsible for her husband's success – in this case, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, wife of the famed French writer Willy – soon evolves into the life story of a daring, subversive and outspoken woman who eviscerated expectations for her gender in the early 20th century by living a life as unapologetically queer as she wished.
The story of Colette is personal to director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice), who spent almost 20 years trying to get the film made with his late husband and co-director, Richard Glatzer.
"Richard had ALS [Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis], so through our last two films he was dealing with so many health issues," says Westmoreland. "All the time that Still Alice was going out in the world and getting quite successful, he was becoming more and more incapacitated.
"After Julianne Moore won the Oscar, he said that he wanted the next film to be Colette, and he passed away shortly afterwards, so making it was very much about keeping his creative spirit alive."
While Colette is famous in France for her work later in life, not as much is known about what Westmoreland calls the "radical, challenging, sexually explosive period" during her first marriage. The British director is thrilled to share her story – particularly to a society that has largely failed to honour its queer history.
"History has been rewritten as straight," he says. "What is happening now is we're looking back and saying, 'Actually, there were LGBTQ+ people throughout history, but they just didn't have those labels.'
"Colette was very ground-breaking and inspiring to LGBTQ+ people. She was just very brazen about it, and wrote about it without a shred of shame, or guilt, or coming out of the closet or anything."
Ironically, Colette's boundary-breaking behaviour was too radical for film producers 100 years later, as Westmoreland and Glatzer tried and failed to get funding for the film in the early 2000s. "The producers we pitched it to would just hear – 'Colette has a lover who's a woman, who's male-identified, and is a forerunner of today's transgender and lesbian community' and you'd see this red flag going up in people's minds," he says. "They'd just say, 'That sounds very interesting, but it sounds a bit too niche for us.'"
As Hollywood slowly opened up to more diverse stories, the film found its footing, with Keira Knightley joining the project in 2017. Knightley had grown up reading Colette, and Westmoreland says she dived into the role with a "high bar of excellence".
"When she turned up on set, she really projected this authentic interpretation of who Colette really was – a spine of steel, sense of moxie, a dry wit and an adventurousness, a need to explore life at all cost."
Colette's supporting cast also sets it apart from other period pieces. It's racially diverse, with British-Indian actor Ray Panthaki and black British actor Johnny Palmer playing historically white characters, while two transgender actors, Jake Graf and Rebeca Root, portray cisgender characters. "I had visited a casting workshop with a lot of trans actors, who were saying, 'We want to be able to be considered for cisgender roles as well,'" says Westmoreland.
"Also around that time, there were several high-profile casting decisions in mainstream studio movies where Asian roles were given to white actors, and I'm like, 'Well, let's do it the other way round,'" he says.
"It was this sense of – do a Colette: break some rules and do what feels natural."
Who: Wash Westmoreland
When: In cinemas today