“The 19thc hatred of Realism is Caliban’s enraged reaction to seeing his own face in the mirror. The 19thc rejection of Romanticism is Caliban’s fury at not seeing his face reflected in the mirror.”
“It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” -Oscar Wilde
There are two ways of writing history. As if it has already happened, and as if it is always happening. This is probably the key distinction between 2018’s Mary, Queen of Scots and Colette. Mary, Queen of Scots opens with text, static and explanatory, as if to say “we’re working with material”; Colette begins with stillness, a mirror centered onscreen, as if to say “what you’re seeing is reflection.” It’s likely this is why Mary, Queen of Scots comes up short of where Colette succeeds. Art can’t function as the enunciation of what has already happened. Plot unfolds. In unfolding, it is happening. And this is no less true for historical art – the power and shock of Inglorious Basterds’ ending, for instance, is due to betraying the material of history. That’s a more literally-minded betrayal then in Colette, of course.
Beginning even with the source material this issue pops up. Mary, Queen of Scots is based on John Guy’s biography, Queen of Scots: The True Life of of Mary Stuart. In its most literal sense the story is already written. From this stems two intertwined issues – a lack of low registers and lack of scale. There is no moment to pause and reflect in the film. Every oasis is a mirage, every scene is explicitly high drama. Not only does this prevent contrast such that the entire film feels like a season’s worth of DBZ-esque serial escalation, it shows a lack of focus on the characters as characters. Much like a long-distance runner doesn’t sprint until exhaustion, a character develops in steady breaths. There’s no such breathing room in Mary, Queen of Scots.
It’s not surprising to learn then that the screenplay writer for the film was Beau Willimon, best known for his work on House of Cards. The breathlessness of Mary, Queen of Scots matches what one would expect of the Netflix political thriller. Both HoC and Mary are embroiled in political intrigue, and it’s this intrigue and its grand ambitions that turn its casts into mere actors. HoC, content with tension, works with constant backstabbing and secret motives. While likely no less true for English/Scottish royalty mid-16th century, it doesn’t allow for relationships to develop fully. It rushes to the next high mark. Without relationships, characters don’t exist. What flowers between Mary and Henry, Elizabeth and William, withers in this little sunlight. The film becomes, despite its title’s ambition, about politics. Whereas character changes with reflection, politics has already happened.
The highlighting moment of Mary, Queen of Scots is Mary’s speech at the council when she refuses to divorce Henry. She states she will not become another Henry VIII, divorcing and remarrying whenever she’s unhappy. It makes no sense for her to provide this context as Henry VIII had died only 15 years prior to the movie beginning. This scene is not written for this character but for the audience to know political context. And while reviewers issues with the numerous sex scenes is a grab bag of missing the point and mistaking the issue – fewer complained about Blue is The Warmest Color’s 15 minute long sex scene – A.O. Scott’s snarky comment does serve to clarify how calcified around historical politics the character becomes: “students of Scottish history may be surprised to learn that the fate of the nation was partly decided by an act of cunnilingus.”
Colette, in contrast, begins with a clear character arc. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette leaves her idyllic garden life at Saint-Sauveur to join her love, and eventual first husband, Willy, in the libertine Paris. The film is less strict than Mary, Queen of Scots when it comes to scale and tone. A particularly revealing moment occurs when Colette is watching a man in makeup who appears to be singing until just off screen a soprano is shown, revealing the man to be nothing but a lip-syncing mime. It’s a drama-less moment. Yet it not only reflects Willy and Colette’s relationship and Parisian sexism generally, but also foresees Colette acting the mime later in the film. The closest similar prophesying in Mary is her execution which acts as the second frame of the film’s structure, literalizing the future.
In Mary, Elizabeth tells William that she is a man (and later tells Mary that the throne has made her a man). This is reversed in David Rizzio, who tells Mary that he feels more like one of her handmaidens than a man. This has the air of highlighting how gender is historically contextual. Yet underscoring this is a concreting of gender assumptions. Elizabeth is emotionless and aromantic: Man. David Rizzio is emotional and only seen sleeping with men: Woman. One might argue that this is a portrayal of how 16th century Europe constrained gender into types – Mary is martyred because she is a woman on the throne who refuses to reject her womanhood while Elizabeth abdicates her womanhood to keep her throne. But this is merely an entrenchment of the gender binary Willison is keen on dismantling. Woman still means Woman, man still means Man.
It’s this concretizing and literalizing which Colette refuses, and that is the basis of its respect for the historical as continuous. Colette in fact functions similar to Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Grey. A series of relationships accumulate into a revelation that could not be independent of any of its parts. It’s for this reason that Sidonie-Gabrielle’s nom de plume is simply Colette, her last name. The idyllic is not unjoined from her identity so much as morphed into a greater understanding of the idyllic. That’s why throughout the film, going from nai-Eve to society woman to libertine and finally to anti-feminine alongside Missy, her relationships are central to the narrative. Each scene displays no vast interlocking mechanism thrust upon her. Rather, this mechanism is a series of material relationships. Colette as the soprano behind a man miming to society.
Notice how, contrary to Mary’s resolution, Colette’s is not about a woman acting unwomanly outside society. Mary is from the start an outsider. Colette grows into Parisian society and only discovers the uselessness of its gendered norms when meeting someone inside of that society. Missy in this case is an outsider on the inside of society. Her betrayal of convention was not granted at birth and legitimized through force as it is with Mary and Elizabeth, but by the rejection of societal norms about presentation. Elizabeth and Mary are always feminine. Missy, and eventually Colette, reject the binary of male and female by existing against the grain of society’s expectations. There’s not a little George Eliot in it. All this makes Mary even less marvelous when one realizes how removed she is from society, as if she were a being outside her historical context.
There is also not just a little to be said about the metafictional aspect of a story about a roman a clef novelist coming into her own through the act of writing, and how she finally claims that identity in the evocative display of her books published with her own pen name instead of her husband’s. As overplayed as the metafictional may be, it is an acknowledgment of the context-dependent nature of how it presents its story. The history it portrays will be retold differently still. In a film like Colette, this is a meaningful touch. Mary, Queen of Scots is as stiff as its title. It sees history as a series of peaks and drops. It sees history as an object. Yet history is no object, and its actors are living. History is us. How would it offer us reflection otherwise?