Knives Out (2019)

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I suspect foul play. I have eliminated no suspects.  When crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies just after his 85th birthday, inquisitive Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives at his estate to investigate despite the presence of police officers (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan). He sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind the writer’s untimely demise as each of the family members and the immigrant nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who cared for Harlan is questioned in turn. Harlan’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a successful businesswoman with a an unfaithful husband Richard (Don Johnson) and a layabout son Ransom (Chris Evans). Harlan’s son Walt (Michael Shannon) runs the publishing company his father founded for his writing output, but they’ve been fighting. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) is an advocate of self-help and has been helping herself to the old man’s money. His ancient mother (K Callan) never seems to die. Harlan’s devoted nurse Marta then becomes Harlan’s most trusted confidante but who hired him in the first place? … This is a twisted web, and we are not finished untangling it, not yet. The closed-room murder mystery is a staple of crime fiction and it’s not necessarily where you’d expect writer/director Rian Johnson to turn after a Star Wars episode (The Last Jedi) although it harks back to his debut, Brick, a take on Chandler/Hammett with teenagers. The touchstones are pretty clear:  Agatha Christie; the game (and film) of Clue(do); Peter Sellers and Elke Sommer in A Shot in the Dark; and some of the grasping familial mendacity we recognise from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. If truth be told, it’s not very mysterious and barely suspenseful with two big twists a regular filmgoer or mystery reader will see through easily which means that they of course are not the point. It’s the dismantling of those hoary old tropes that provides the narrative motor. Much of the entertainment value derives from game comic playing by an established cast with a soupçon of political commentary provided by the nurse’s immigrant status which leads to a good line featuring Broadway hit Hamilton and everyone gets her native country wrong, one of the running jokes. Another is her need to vomit when telling a lie. The other one is stretching out the syllables in Benoit’s name so it sounds like Ben wa although personally I find Craig more prophylactic than sex toy and his ‘tec is Poirot X Columbo with an affected drawl. It looks quite sober and already feels like Sunday evening TV. For the undemanding viewer. CSI KFC!

Kalifornia (1993)

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What the hell did I know about California? For some people it was still a place of hopes and dreams, a chance to start over. Graduate journalism student Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) has published an article about serial killers that secures an offer for a book deal. He and his girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes), an avant garde photographer, decide to relocate to California in hopes of enriching their careers. The two plot their journey from Louisville, Kentucky to Los Angeles,planning to visit infamous murder sites along the way which Carrie can photograph for Brian’s book. Trouble is, they’re short of money so Brian posts a ride-share ad on campus. Psychopathic recent parolee Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) has just lost his job. His parole officer learns of this and comes to the trailer where Early lives with his naïve girlfriend waitress Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis). Early refuses the officer’s offer of a job as a janitor at the university, saying he wants to leave the state, but the officer pressures him into keeping his appointment for the job interview. When Early arrives at the campus, he sees the ride-share ad and calls Brian, who agrees to meet him the following day and the mismatched foursome take off cross-country one hour after Early has murdered his landlord. Carrie has immediate misgivings when she sees the white trash pair and becomes very scared when Early and Brian start drinking together and Brian becomes infatuated with guns … Tell me, big shot, how you gonna write a book about something you know nothing about? It’s a neat concept:  a guy obsessed with serial killers ends up sharing a ride with a serial killer and then becomes inured to the effects of that violent experience when it’s finally him or – him. It’s constructed as though this were the rite of passage for a writer of such true crimes giving him a taste for murder albeit the closing voiceover indicates he has learnt nothing because he feels nothing. So maybe we’re in the realm of unfulfilled masculinity – so much of this narrative is tied into sex and instinct. Perhaps it’s too self-satisfied, perhaps Pitt’s performance as the kinky white trailer trash is too eccentric, Lewis too retarded, Forbes too knowing, Duchovny too withdrawn. These are people whose paths would never ordinarily cross however they’re in a car together having to deal with each other. On the other hand it’s a cool piece of work with a kind of sociocultural commentary about how we are bumping up against people we disagree with on a daily basis, how some elitists have a kind of fascination for the going-nowhere working classes, how pure intellect is rarely a match for feral intuition and how serial killers can attain a celebrity that transcends mere notoriety into a form of acceptability because it is no longer possible to move us in a world where so much is abandoned and empty. It’s no accident that the finale takes place at Dreamland, the old nuclear testing site and fake town on the California-Nevada border. Originally written by Tim Metcalfe with Stephen Levy, this appears to have changed substantially in tone in development. Directed like a stylishly cool breeze by Dominic Sena in his feature debut. I’ll never know why Early Grayce became a killer. I don’t know why any of them did. When I looked into his eyes I felt nothing, nothing

La peau douce (1964)

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Aka Silken Skin/ Soft Skin. I’ve learned that men’s unhappiness arises from the inability to stay quietly in their own room. While flying to Lisbon, Portugal to give a lecture, writer and magazine editor Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly), encounters beautiful air stewardess Nicole (Françoise Dorléac) and winds up spending the night with her at the hotel where they both happen to be staying. What was intended to be a one-night stand becomes a tumultuous extramarital affair once he returns to Paris and his wife Franca (Nelly Benedetti) and little daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) . Pierre tries to keep the affair secret but arranges a lecture trip to Reims which he thinks he can use as cover for their relationship but when his wife suspects him, she snaps and determines to enact terrible revenge … Ever take a good look at yourself? This passionate tale of adultery still stirs the emotions, firstly through the extraordinary performance of Dorléac (who used to be viewed as the more talented of those two famous French acting sisters, the younger being Catherine Deneuve) before her tragic demise. It’s heightened by an outrageously urgent and eloquent score by Georges Delerue and photographed with his usual limpid approach by Raoul Coutard, lending tenderness to the sexual attraction as it is complicated by the usual deceptions, occasionally tipping into farce. This guy cannot stop himself from doing the wrong thing at every juncture. Every car trip turns into an imperilled journey, planting the seeds of a wholly unnecessary tragic dénouement. A totally ordinary story is elevated to something like a thriller by staging, characterisation and pace. All the leads are tremendous:  Desailly is a wholly inadequate lover and husband, Dorléac a perfectly modern young woman, Benedetti an exquistely melodramatic woman scorned, as she sees it. An elegant disquisition on the unfairness of love, missed opportunities and the passing of youth as a tawdry and rather unmotivated love triangle falls apart. Written by director François Truffaut with Jean-Louis Richard (who has an uncredited role as a man harassing Franca in the street), this tale of amour fou is almost operatic in its pure conventionality and one ponders its morbid focus when one realises it was mostly shot at Truffaut’s own apartment with the suspenseful influence of Hitchcock fresh in his mind after a summer interviewing the great man for the classic tome, Hitchcock/Truffaut.  The ending is gobsmacking. Think of me

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019)

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Hey that’s no way to say goodbye. Documentary maker Nick Broomfield charts the story of the enduring love affair between writer and singer Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne Ihlen, a young married woman and mother, who spent time together on the Greek island of Hydra in the Sixties, the era before mass tourism.  They made each other believe they were beautiful and she lived with him and took on the role she had previously performed for her writer husband.  It transpires Broomfield knew them both and also fell in love with Marianne who later pushed him to make his first film back in Wales. Cohen’s career is etched against the backdrop of the relationship and it is echoed in the songs he wrote in Marianne’s honour and memory including Bird on a Wire. I was possessed, obsessive about [sex], the blue movie that I threw myself into [and] blue movies are not romantic. However it’s mostly about Leonard, and even Nick. I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web/ Is fastening my ankle to a stone.  In some ways this is a bad trip in more ways than one as the film makes clear, with alterations in lyrics making over the original conditions in which they were written. Leonard earned the nickname Captain Mandrax thanks to his gargantuan appetite for drugs.  Hydra became a playground for the wealthy, awash with illicit substances and countercultural encounters structure the narrative as much as Leonard’s songs. Various interviewees agree that poets do not make great husbands.  I was always trying to get away. So what did Marianne do that made her such a significant muse, and not just to Leonard? She had a talent for spotting talents and strengths in people.  After eight years together during which Leonard went from being a penniless poet to a nervous stage performer when Judy Collins discovered him and he became a star overnight, Marianne had had enough. He had an obsessive love of sex which he dutifully indulged while she stayed on the island. When she was summoned she joined him but things did not work and her little son suffered. She endured Leonard’s constant infidelities on the road and she was replaced by Suzanne (Elrod) whose relationship with Leonard overlapped with her own, and one day spider woman Suzanne turned up on the doorstep in Hydra with their toddler son Adam, ready to move in.  So Marianne moved on. Leonard had found himself to be a born performer and she no longer had a role, this sensitive woman who didn’t draw or paint or write yet whose value as muse was frequently cited by Leonard in public, on stage, in interviews. Thereafter there were telegrams to her and invites to concerts when she returned to Norway and remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle and their relationship fizzled into a kind of long-distance friendship which ended poignantly. Broomfield reveals that on one visit to him in Cardiff Marianne had to go away one day to abort Leonard’s baby – one of several she had by him. One friend comments that if anyone were to have had his children it should have been her. Instead it was the universally disliked Elrod. Marianne and Leonard’s relationship wasn’t the only casualty, as Broomfield finds in this picture of the early hippie lifestyle with its bohemian leanings and open marriages. There are accounts of mental illness and suicides including the sad account of the Johnstons, the friends who made his arrival in Greece so happy and easeful. Re-entering the real world following the isolation of this island adrift from the world was anything but happy. This is a complex story with many participants and audio interviews old and new are interspersed with superb archive footage (some by DA Pennebaker), numerous photographs and revealing chats with friends, bystanders and musicians who survive to tell the tale of this mysterious love.  It is about Broomfield’s own loyal friendship with Marianne. Finally, it is about people finding themselves through each other and a story almost mythical in musical history which has so nourished the world’s imagination. So long, Marianne

Deadline USA (1952)

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A journalist makes himself the hero of the story. A reporter is only a witness. New York City newspaper The Day is in money trouble. Even though editor Ed Hutcheson (Humphrey Bogart) has worked hard running the paper, its circulation has been steadily declining. Now the widow (Ethel Barrymore) of the paper’s publisher wants to sell the paper to a commercial rival, which will most likely mean its end. Hutcheson also worries that his estranged ex-wife Nora (Kim Hunter) is about to remarry. His only hope of saving the paper is to increase the numbers by finishing his exposé on a dangerous racketeer Tomas Rienzi (Martin Gabel) before the sale is made final after a reporter is badly beaten up investigating the murder of a girl called Bessie Schmidt who may have been Rienzi’s mistress while her brother Herman (Joe De Santis) had dealings with him... Stupidity isn’t hereditary, you acquire it by yourself. Twentieth Century-Fox and writer/director Richard Brooks were a good fit:  a studio that liked pacy stories paired with a filmmaker whose toughness had a literary quality and a fast-moving narrative style.  Both parties wanted message movies and the message here is A free press, like a free life, sir, is always in danger. The newspaper is broadly based on New York Sun which closed in 1950 (and it was edited by Benjamin Day) although according to Brooks’ biography it was more or less based on New York World which closed in 1931. The casting is great with Bogart excellent as the relentlessly crusading editor who acts on his principles while all about him tumble to influence and threats, trying to peddle the truth rather than the expeditious. Barrymore towers in her supporting role as the publisher and their conflict with her daughters is the ballast to the crime story, with the marital scenario giving it emotional heft. Jim Backus does some nice work as reporter Jim Cleary:  For this a fellow could catch a hole in the head. A cool piece of work, in every sense of the term. Watch for an uncredited James Dean as a copyboy in a busy montage. That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!

Submission (2017)

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I hope they crucify you. Married one-hit wonder novelist Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) is a creative writing professor at a college in Houston having difficulty producing his followup. His talented student Angela Argo (Addison Timlin) asks him to read the first chapter of her novel Eggs and when he reads poetry about a phone-sex worker she wrote for another professor, Magda Moynahan (Janeane Garofalo), he begins to fantasise about the sex acts she describes and gradually becomes obsessed with her while she manipulates him into doing things for her including bringing her to a town where she can buy a computer. Then she seduces him in her room but their coitus is interrupted when he breaks a tooth. When she finally presents her work to the class the other students repay her bullying by telling her what they really think of her writing and she becomes tearful.  She guilt trips Ted into bringing her pages to his New York editor Len (Peter Gallagher) and then files charges against him when she thinks he hasn’t done what he’s been asked … My father set himself on fire. Adapted from Francine Prose’s novel Blue Angel (and using that film and novel as its template), this is really an obvious story about how a young pricktease can stupefy a man into losing everything by dint of sexual suggestion and wearing thigh-high boots and black underwear. The problem for the viewer is that Angela’s act is so transparent – if I heard her say My pages one more time … that the outcome is inevitable if not quite depressingly tedious.  She is no Dietrich. (And anyone who’s ever had an irritatingly ambitious student in their class will find their teeth grinding in recognition.) That it concludes in the usual safe space of a hearing with an allegation backed up with a neat recording, the vixen dressed down in dungarees, says more about the state of things than any review could explain.  There are clever elements: how the narration of Angela’s work becomes the movie’s own unreliable narrator as well as Ted’s masturbation material; an excruciating dinner party (is there any other kind?) which exposes the hidebound nature of academia where moronic millennialist paranoia about sexual harassment actually operates as a duplicitous form of Salem-style censorship and has the adults on the run; Ted’s novel is based on his own life and his agent suggests he rewrite it as a memoir – forcing him to confront his own limitations and not just on the page. His life with delightful wife nurse Sherrie (Kyra Sedgwick) has an edge because of his difficulties with their adult daughter Ruby (Colby Minifie, who literally bears no resemblance to either biological parent!) – cue another awkward dinner, mirroring his inability to read the tricky women around him and deal with the everlasting fallout from that father who was a celebrity for the 15 minutes it took him to burn himself to death in an act of political outrage in the Sixties. Ah, sweet mysteries of life! Tucci is fine, or at least I hope he is. Written and directed by Richard Levine. He read her story. Then he became part of it

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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I was always afraid of being found out. I can’t specifically say that I regret my actions. I don’t. In New York City 1991 biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is struggling financially and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t get her an advance for a book about Fanny Brice so she sells off a treasured possession – a letter to her from Katharine Hepburn – to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells).  She hatches a scheme to forge letters by famous writers and sell them to bookstores and collectors. When the dealers start to catch on and she is tipped off about being blacklisted, Lee recruits an old sometime acquaintance, drug dealer Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her continue her self-destructive cycle of trickery and deceit but then the FBI move in You can be an asshole if you’re famous. You can’t be unknown and be such a bitch, Lee. This is the biography of a biographer (from Israel’s own autobiography…) so you can draw out many ideas and inferences about life imitating art, writers imitating genius, literary theft on a large or small scale.  Writing in their subject’s voice is just one of the outcomes of one writer inhabiting another writer’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing these letters, living in the world of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, pretending I was something I am not. In other words (as it were) it is a logical extrapolation that a writer of biographical works should on some level be themselves a liberator of other people’s ideas. You might say, it’s their job.  Enough of the meta fiction. The screenplay is by the marvellous Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) who is no mean director herself and yes, she was supposed to helm this. So what happened? Apparently Julianne Moore and Holofcener had ‘creative differences’ and both of them dropped out – both of them! But were those differences with each other?! Apparently Moore was fired by Holofcener. Something about wanting to wear a fat suit and a prosthetic nose. And so, six days before production it all stopped. And Sam Rockwell who was due to play Hock disappeared somewhere along the line. Then Marielle Heller was deployed on directing duties.  Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, stayed in the cast (as Alan Schmidt) and McCarthy joined. And her performance is towering.  I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people. She’s a lonely alcoholic middle-aged mess and utterly believable as the writer on the outs, a kind of midlife crisis on acid with huge money problems and lacking the funds to even secure veterinary assistance to care for Jersey her beloved cat. But somehow she’s a compelling, likeable figure, something real amid the poseurs (like Tom Clancy, lampooned here. Him and his $3,000,000 advance). Irony is writ large. She imitates Bette Davis in The Little Foxes on TV, watching on her couch with Jersey. Then the TV set becomes a light box to improve the fake signatures. Grant and she make a fine double act – he’s the louche lounge lizard à la Withnail (referenced here) to her fiercely bedraggled Lesbian, conniving to her inventive. They are both prone to a bit of larceny. His double betrayal is horrible, his death weirdly apposite. It’s a beautifully constructed odd couple tragicomedy and looks and feels like the real thing – entirely without sentiment, appropriately, considering that it is all about life in the literary margins, a kind of palimpsest of an overachiever who’s no longer marketable as herself. It all happens as Manhattan alters from a kind of bohemian haven into impossibly uninhabitable real estate. Really quite wonderful. I was hiding behind these people, their names. Because if I’d actually put myself out there, done my own work, then I would be opening myself up to criticism. And I’m too much of a coward for all of that  MM#2400

The Best of Everything (1959)

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Here’s to men. Bless their clean-cut faces and dirty little minds! 1950s Manhattan:  three young women meet in the typing pool at Fabian Publishing and later share a home together: glamorous Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker) is an aspiring actress secretly yearning for domesticity whose director David Savage (Louis Jourdan) is using her; naive country girl April Morrison (Diane Baker) is left pregnant and alone by callous playboy Dexter Key (Robert Evans); and ambitious Radcliffe graduate Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) finds solace in the arms of editor Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd) while her fiancé is abroad. Together the three contend with unwise entanglements, office politics and the threat that their dreams for a fulfilling career will be cut short by marriage and children, while their romantic obsessions attract tragedy and the office is ruled with an iron fist by bitter chief editor Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford) ...What is it about women like us that make you hold us so cheaply? Aren’t we the special ones from the best homes and the best colleges? I know the world outside isn’t full of rainbows and happy endings, but to you, aren’t we even decent?  Rona Jaffe’s1958 novel was an electrifying publishing event – a book by a woman about women trying to make it with explosive stories of sex and illegitimate pregnancy, featuring a spectrum of female experience in the workplace. Its influence is all over the presentation of corporate NYC in Mad Men and its cast represents a showcase for stars new and old in an era just before Women’s Lib. Edith R. Sommer and Mann Rubin’s adaptation fillets the material yet the throughline of forging your way through a chauvinistic office and patriarchal world retains its edge and raw emotion. Crawford supposedly made some script revisions but whether they were retained in the released film (as opposed to the tantalising trailer) is up for debate. She sure gets the lion’s share of tough lines as office witch Amanda Farrow who at heart is just a lonely disappointed older woman albeit with a hell of a list. She is the benchmark for female achievement in a drama about the perils of settling for less and the sacrifices you have to make to succeed. She has a carapace of steel but it can be pierced  … Martha Hyer also impresses as Barbara, the divorced office siren, while Lange is a sympathetic heroine and Brian Aherne is fine as the loathsome Lothario Mr Shalimar. An entertaining romance about whether or not you can have it all which limns the realities of being female – the contemporary detail may be different but the song remains the same. Directed with his customary zest and smooth visual finesse by Jean Negulesco and produced by Jerry Wald.  Author Jaffe – who was a Radcliffe alumnus working at Fawcett Publishing in NYC when the book came out – appears briefly as an office pool stenographer. She graduated to writing extraordinary culture pieces at Cosmopolitan and enjoyed huge success with her subsequent books. I’m so ashamed. Now I’m just somebody who’s had an affair

Genius (2016)

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You took the words right out of my mouth. In 1929 Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) is the successful book editor known for working with F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West). He lives peaceably with wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters and is taken with the manuscript O, Lost by a new writer, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and agrees to work with him. Its success (with the title Look Homeward, Angel) causes issues between Wolfe and theatre designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman) an older married woman with whom he is involved and the tensions escalate in the years it takes to produce his next book, Of Time and the River, which requires massive revision. He moves to Paris and upon his return to New York, he quarrels with Max and turns to another editor… Might want to read this one. Adapted by John Logan from the legendary biography of editor Perkins by A. Scott Berg, this was always going to be a tricky proposition:  how to you make the internal mechanics of the writing world interesting? How do you externalise the creative process? Here, it’s all about relationships. Perkins had the reputation he had because he knew how the writer’s mind worked and how to make a book sell and here it’s a talent dedicated specifically to the spectacularly gifted Wolfe, a seemingly rare genius who however needs someone to finesse his excessively prolix work. This is an acting masterclass with rhyming scenes and dialogue that must have been a dream to perform, rhythmic and quotable and filled with nuance and payoffs. To be a novelist, you have to select. You have to shape and sculpt. It’s telling that Fitzgerald and Hemingway are supporting characters working as a kind of echo chamber to the central story. Will anyone care about Thomas Wolfe in 100 years? Ten years? When I was young, I asked myself that question every day/ I used to trouble myself like that every day. Now I ask myself, “Can I write one good sentence.”  Wolfe and Berg are fully fleshed out, real and rumbustious and rich, with their letters used by Logan to create scenes that evoke difficulty and even jealousy with the women in their respective lives. The production design and editing are detailed and impactful but this is essentially illuminating about two men, big characters with a way with words, their working friendship and a thorough exposition of negotiating through a creative collaboration focusing on the importance of having the right editor for the right writer and the best book it is possible to produce. Fascinating and brilliantly acted, this is a buddy movie of a very different variety which ironically might need a little editing itself but it’s a great excursion into the business of big books and the world of the Great American Novelist. Directed by theatre grandee Michael Grandage. I don’t exist any more. I’ve been edited

Colette (2018)

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You’ve done something important. You’ve invented a type. After moving to Paris from the rural idyll of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye to marry her much older critic/publisher lover Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) known as ‘Willy’, young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) agrees to ghostwrite a semi-autobiographical novel for him. Its success soon ultimately inspires her to fight for creative ownership while working in his writing factory and overcome the societal constraints of the early 20th century as they share their lover duplicitous Louisiana debutante Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), making them jealous of each other’s sexual escapades.  Colette has to write more and more to make ends meet as Willy fritters away the earnings made in his name alone. Colette begins a relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a wealthy Lesbian who cross-dresses and this new lover accompanies Colette on a music hall tour as she attempts to assert her power away from Willy, performing controversial shows as an actress. Her life with Willy is fatally compromised when he sells the rights to her fictional character, ‘Claudine,’ the heroine of the bestselling series of books bearing his name but which are her life and thoughts entirely… You still need a headmaster. An attractive rites of passage narrative evoking a gauzy rural France and the late nineteenth century café society where men and women live radically different lives. That is, until Colette decides she wants what her philandering husband has and rails against the accepted norms even as he smooths and polishes her writing and adds the prurience that the pulp market requires. He is revealed as an increasingly tawdry, jealous type despite having an abundance of charm and social success. Her creative growth is calibrated against their mutual infidelity – interestingly with the same woman and then sated by different people.  The idea of identity and authorship and Willy’s liberal education of his innocent but yearning wife is portrayed as a drama of exploitation that has both profit and loss at its heart. This battle of the sexes biography plays out against the trials of the (re-)writing life and it elicits good performances but never really sparks the kind of emotional notes you would expect considering the astonishing story of this racy belle époque heroine, not to mention the sheer sensual joy of Colette’s body of work which came of age as the world embraced modernity. Written by director Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewica and the late Richard Glatzer to whom the film is dedicated. The one who wields the pen writes history