Arts Review, Station Blog
Colette and Lizzie
The love that dares to speak its name—now
By Marc Glassman
Wash Westmoreland, director and co-script w/Rebecca Lenkiewicz & Richard Glatzer
Starring: Keira Knightley (Colette), Dominic West (Willy), Eleanor Tomlinson (Georgie), Denise Gough (Mathilde de Morny), Fiona Shaw (Sido), Alysha Hart (Polaire)
Craig William Macneill, dir.
Bryce Kass, script
Starring: Chloe Sevigny (Lizzie Borden), Kristen Stewart (Bridget), Fiona Shaw (Abby Borden), Jamey Sheridan (Andrew Borden), Denis O’Hare (John Morse), Kim Dickens (Emma Borden), Jay Huguley (William Henry Moody)
Back in the prudish days of late Victorian England and America’s Gilded Age, homosexuality was considered to be so scandalous that it was actually termed “the love that dare not speak its name” in a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas published in 1894. The phrase was almost immediately used against Douglas’ lover Oscar Wilde in a libel charge that the acclaimed playwright lost to Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensbury. Wilde ended up disgraced and imprisoned and he soon lost his life.
Life is much freer today although sexual conservatism and fights against women’s rights and those of the LGBTQ community are definitely on the rise. It makes sense that two new films, Colette and Lizzie are opening in Toronto this weekend since both deal with lesbianism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, right around the time of the Wilde trial.
Colette is the real life story—if somewhat dramatized—of the first marriage and early success of one of France’s most acclaimed writers. A country girl, Colette met Henry Gauthier-Villars, a Parisian nearly twenty years her senior, when she was still in her teens. They married in 1894 and by 1900, she started publishing semi-autobiographical novels about an adventurous gamine named Claudine—but the books were signed by “Willy,” the literary nom de plume of our husband Gauthier-Villars. This deception carried on for three increasingly popular novels in which the now sophisticated androgynous Claudine embarked on same-sex affairs as well as ménage-a-trois with her husband and another woman. Happily for Colette and the endlessly calculating Willy, France was in the midst of its Belle Epoque: people were more titillated than scandalized and the books were huge best sellers. Indeed, Claudine’s look became a brand in France and merchandise was actually produced to take advantage of the character’s immense appeal.
In the film, Colette is played by Keira Knightley and Willy by Dominic West. This British production is helmed by Wash Westmoreland, who is most famous for Still Alice, the wonderfully compassionate look at a professor and mother suddenly dealing with her early onset Alzheimer’s Disease; Westmoreland’s lead Julianne Moore won the Oscar for best actress as well as the Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG prizes. It’s no surprise that Keira Knightley is brilliant as Colette—slowly growing from a provincial girl into a cosmopolitan artist. Probably more surprising is the mature performance of Dominic West, a great TV actor, most known for The Wire and The Affair, who matches Knightley note for note throughout the film. It’s their chemistry that holds Colette together although plenty of time is given to the author’s burgeoning lesbian interests. Particularly remarkable are the scenes between Knightley and Denise Gough, who is terrific, although perhaps a bit too contemporary in her appeal, as the aristocratic Mathilde de Morny. The two are quite combustible on screen: their sexuality is exciting delivered.
Wilde’s trial took place in 1895, just two years after Lizzie Borden was found not guilty in the most notorious murder case of the time. Lizzie, a New England “spinster,” was at home when her father and stepmother were both brutally beaten to death with a hatchet. The only other person in the house that fateful morning was the Borden’s servant Bridget “Molly” Sullivan. Neither claimed to have known anything about the deaths although over 60 years later, Bridget admitted to a friend that she had changed her testimony to make Lizzie look good.
Chloe Sevigny stars as Lizzie and is one of the film’s producers but she has given interviews in which she claims that the director Craig William Macneill had muted the intensity she wanted to give to the production. She’s right—Lizzie does feel like a film that could have been better. Certainly one of the elements that deserved to have been played up is the relationship between Sevigny’s Lizzie and Kristen Stewart’s Bridget. Though it’s never been proven that Lizzie was a lesbian, scriptwriter Bryce Kass, who worked for a decade on the film with Sevigny, has made her sexual orientation one of the prime motivations for Ms. Borden’s behaviour. Indeed, it’s the nude appearances of Sevigny and Stewart during the murder scenes that truly enlivens the film and makes it a transgressive must-see.
It’s odd but fascinating to consider the stories of Lizzie Borden and Colette as nearly simultaneous events. Yet they did take place within a decade of each other—and their lives have become enduringly popular. In both cases, one could argue that the women had fought the patriarchy and emerged triumphant. It’s not fair to equate a novelist with a probable murderer but it is interesting to realize that their stories still resonate with a public that has never gotten over its fascination with the “love that dares not speak its name.”
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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