Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

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The musical “Gigi” is a bit out of fashion these days with that leering old Maurice Chevalier singing “Thank Heaven, for little girls.” But you may not know that it was based on a book by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a French novelist, actress, mime, and journalist. Acclaimed as a “woman of letters,” she was even nominated for a Nobel Prize.

You can learn more about Colette by catching the new biopic based on her life. The movie “Colette” is now playing at Tropic Cinema.

Being French, Colette had a somewhat racy imagination. She married Henry Gauthier-Villars, a well-known writer 14 years older than her. Willy (as he was known) encouraged her to write.

Her first four books – the semi-autobiographical Claudine stories – were published under her husband’s name.

These coming of age adventures were quite a sensation, incorporating “the secondary myth of Sappho … the girls’ school or convent ruled by a seductive female teacher.” Some of it was based on the lesbian dalliances her husband encouraged her to have, while he dallied with his mistresses.

When the book became popular, she wanted to put her own name on them, but Willy refused and “locked her in her room until she produced enough pages to suit him.”

She divorced Willy, but because he owned her book’s copyrights she was forced to turn to the theater to make a living for herself.

Nonetheless, she continued to write. The stories were often titillating. “Cheri” and “Le Blé en herbe” both told of the love between an older woman and a younger man. And “Gigi” was about a young girl being trained as a courtesan in order to captivate a wealthy lover.

Her real life mirrored her books. She had an affair with her second husband’s 16-year-old stepson, and she was much older than her third husband.

Many of her novels deal with women’s independence in a male society.

Although a period piece, the film’s theme of female empowerment is quite timely. It focuses on Colette’s life in her twenties, her marriage to her first husband, and the publication of her first novels under his name.

Keira Knightly was a good choice for Gabrielle Colette’s on-screen presence. Dominic West is well-suited as Colette’s first husband.

Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) directed the film and co-wrote the script.

Just before her death in 1954, Katherine Ann Porter proclaimed that Colette was “the greatest living French writer of fiction …” That was interesting because her books “L’Etoile vesper” and ”Le Fanal bleu” reflect on the problems of a writer whose inspiration is primarily autobiographical.

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