Not even a twinkly eyed, scene-stealing turn by Klaus Maria Brandauer is enough to enliven Danny Huston’s “Becoming Colette,” a lumbering period drama based on the early life of novelist Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (1873 -1954).
Huston’s sophomore feature (after “Mr. North”) is lovely to look at but dramatically inert. International TV market may be its most appropriate venue.
Ruth May’s episodic script (with “revisions” credited to Burt Weinshanker) is structured as a flashback, with Colette (Mathilda May) recalling her salad days after spotting her ex-husband (Brandauer) in the audience during one of her avant-garde theater performances.
Pic jumps to a small French town in early 1890s, when her financially pressed father allows her marriage to Henri Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy, a rakish publisher who sweeps her away to Paris.
Willy turns out to be even more improvident than her father. But he spots in Colette a budding literary talent he is determined to nurture–and exploit.
To make any sense of “Becoming Colette,” which plays like a truncated feature version of an epic miniseries, it helps to know a little bit about Colette’s history.
Until she split from Willy in 1904, he kept her in virtual literary bondage, forcing her to write several erotic novels that were published under his pseudonym. (He rationalized that Paris readers would never accept such stuff from a woman author.)
She began writing as Colette in 1916. In 1945, she wrote the novel “Gigi” that inspired the multi-Oscar-winning movie.
“Becoming Colette” sporadically spices up its rote recapitulation of facts with the sort of high-gloss, soft-core steaminess that used to be Radley Metzger’s stock in trade. Highlight is a nude love scene shared by Colette and music-hall performer Polaire (played by Virginia Madsen, the director’s wife). Clinch suddenly becomes three-part harmony when Willy — who earlier failed to interest his demure wife in a menage a trois — enters and joins the fun.
Scene indicates that “Becoming Colette” might have been campy fun if Huston and company had dropped all literary pretense, and gone for cheap thrills. But no. Pic struggles to make some sort of feminist statement about Colette’s determination to publish her naughty stories under her own name, to gain the literary recognition she deserves.
If this ponderous drama had substance at some point, it was left on the cutting room floor.
Mathilda May’s attempt to maintain her character’s basic ingenuousness (even while penning erotic stroies) aren’t as ridiculous here as they were in “Naked Tango.” But her performance simply isn’t compelling enough to generate empathy or admiration.
Madsen is much livelier and much, much more engaging in a much smaller role. Brandauer is hugely enjoyable in a meaty performance.
Paul Rhys, Jean Pierre Aumont and John van Dreelen are among the notables briefly glimpsed in the margins. Everybody–stars, supporting actors, bit players, walk-ons–seems to have a different accent, the eternal curse of international co-productions.
“Becoming Colette” was handsomely lensed by Wolfgang Treu in Berlin (mostly interiors at CCC Studios) and Bordeaux. Unfortunately, scenes set in the famed Moulin Rouge only serve to remind audiences of a much better pic by the director’s father.
Other tech credits, especially Barbara Baum’s costume design, are first-rate.