Sketch of the author Colette's face and hair in profile.

Colonial Colette: From Orientalism and Egyptian Pantomime to Polaire’s Jamaican “Slave”

I first read excerpts of Colette’s Sido in my IB French class in 2007, so when the recent biopic starring Keira Knightley and produced by Wash Westmoreland came out, I knew that I had to see it. Colette was one of the most prolific French writers of the early twentieth century, well known for her direct and personal prose. Film critics almost uniformly agree that although the narrative is neatly woven, the film flattens the impact of Colette’s radical legacy. It only covers a decade and a half of Colette’s life, from her marriage to Willy (Henry Gauthier-Villars) in 1893 until their divorce in 1910. This leaves out a significant portion of her literary output, her Nobel Prize nomination in 1948, and the final years of her life as the President of the Goncourt Academy (which awards the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize). Despite these limitations, the film holds its own as a biopic of an influential French woman writer and an important historical account of fin-de-siècle gender nonconformity and bisexuality. But perhaps the most interesting aspects of the film are its briefly explored colonial contours.

As a biopic, Colette is concerned with providing a narrative for the writer’s life, entourage, and cultural impact. However, one of the more significant details left out of the film is the backstory of Colette’s mother, Adèle Eugénie Sidonie, usually referred to as “Sido.” Colette’s parents make a few appearances in the film, and we learn that her father lost his leg in the Franco-Austrian war. Her mother’s past, however, is largely a mystery. In fact, Colette’s maternal family is rooted in Martinique. Her ancestor Pierre Landois, from the region of Champagne, went to the Caribbean colony of Martinique in the 1660s to work as an indentured laborer in the sugar cane fields.1

By 1680, the Landois had established a plantation in the Caribbean, and the family possessed twenty-six enslaved people — nine men, eleven women, and six children.2 The exclusion of Sido’s familial past means that the film almost entirely leaves out the Americas. The film’s depiction of an extended sequence of sexual encounters between Georgie Raoul-Duval, a “wayward debutante from Louisiana,” and Colette and her husband Willy (Dominic West), demonstrate that the film is more invested in exploring Colette’s sexuality than providing a deep-dive into her familial past as it relates to the colonial Americas.

A sepia-toned soft-focus portrait of a young woman in an embroidered top with a curly up-do.
Émilie Zouze Bouchaud known as “Polaire”, was a Franco-Algerian actress who famously played Claudine (The Cabinet Card Gallery)

Earlier in the film, Willy and Colette are tasked with casting the theatrical première of Colette’s first novel, Claudine à Paris (Claudine in Paris), in Paris in 1902. After listening to a few drab versions of the first lines of Claudine à l’école read by numerous women, an actor named Polaire (Aiysha Hart) enters the theater and introduces herself as the “real Claudine.” Willy describes her as the “pride of Algiers,” calling attention to French settler colonialism in the Maghreb throughout the nineteenth century. Born in Agha, Algiers in 1874 Polaire made her way to Paris at fourteen to join her brother, who was an actor.3

When she was finally cast in Claudine à Paris, the play took off. It also concretized Claudine, Polaire, and by extension, Colette as recognizable sex symbols.4 In one scene, naked-to-the-waist bodybuilders carry Polaire into the same restaurant as Colette and Willy. As if her buff entourage was not enough, Willy, apparently seduced by the whole spectacle, suggests that Colette adopt Polaire’s bob-style haircut.

In future Claudine novels, Colette even created a fictional character named “Polaire” as an exotic Algerian foil for the protagonist, Claudine. Claudine s’en va (Claudine and Annie) is steeped in orientalist ideas about the Levant and the Middle East: “[Claudine’s] looks didn’t evoke the Orient like Polaire’s eyes, those admirable eyes of distrust … and also of serfdom.”5 Colette describes Polaire’s facial features as severely traced with a pencil and depicts the actress as Claudine’s sexual rival.

A dark-skinned man in a suit wearing a necklace next to a light-skinned woman with curly hair wearing a hat.
James George and Polaire on August 8, 1910 prior to their departure for Paris. As the photograph’s caption indicates, Polaire and the media that followed her on her US tour referred to James George as her “slave.” The actress apparently let him leave her presence once back in Paris; it is unclear what ultimately happened to James. (Bain News Service/US Library of Congress)

Even though Polaire is a minor character in Wash Westmoreland’s film, her acting career successfully continued for years after playing Claudine, culminating in international tours to London and New York. In the United States, Polaire engaged in her own form of colonial pantomime and performance when she appeared in New York in 1910 with a young Jamaican boy named James George. Changing the boy’s name to “Jacques Georges” to reflect the French pronunciation, The Daily Gleaner (Jamaica) reported that Polaire had actually taken James into her possession, calling him at times her “bodyguard” and her “slave.”6

She gave James a new suit and a silver chain necklace with “directions for his return to Mlle. Polaire should he become lost, strayed or stolen.” In her memoirs, Polaire describes the scene differently, saying that a German financier gave her “Jimmy” and a check for 100,000 francs as she was leaving for Paris. She writes that James had “a mischievous and bright personality, laughing and smiling with his his shiny teeth.”7

Paris bothered James, and Polaire remembered that the financier “was perhaps right when he assured me that atmosphere of big cities was often harmful to people of color.” Polaire, clearly not understanding the stakes of bondage and servitude, ultimately “separated herself from [James]…,” although it is unclear from her memoirs what happened to him. Taken together with Polaire’s family background as colonial homesteaders in Algeria, her final moments spent in the United States amount to another episode in her own personal colonial performance on and offstage.

The front page of a 1910 newspaper titled The Daily Gleaner with a headline story titled "Jamaican Page, Bodyguard selected by French actress" with a grainy photo of a light-skinned woman and a dark-skinned man standing next to each other.
Polaire standing with James George before the two boarded a steamer bound for Paris (The Daily Gleaner, August 15, 1910/Newspaper Archive)

Polaire’s nonchalance regarding James George and his indenture recalls the casual nature with which colonial themes were handled in turn-of-the-century mainstream French literary culture, as in Colette’s novel Chéri. In the 1920 novel, which falls out of the purview of the Westmoreland film, colonial themes reappear in the margins of the story. One character, Marie-Laure, inherited her father’s sugar cane plantations when he died. Other women discuss their intimate liaisons in salon and parlor-like settings, asking whether or not they’ve slept with black or Chinese men.

In a short exchange between two characters toward the end of the novel, one says that “a relationship of seven years, that’s like following your husband to the colonies: when you come back, nobody recognizes you and you no longer know how to properly do your makeup.”8 Like Westmoreland’s film, the French colonial past here is both present and evacuated of depth in a way that uses colonial themes as part of the décor of bourgeois literary culture.

A woman in a stylized Egyptian costume sitting with legs apart and feet together with her wrists resting on her knees.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in Egyptian Dream, a pantomime, 1907. (Leopold-Emile Reutlinger | Public domain)

Toward the end of the film, Colette begins her career as a mime, co-starring in a show called Egyptian Dream. During the performance of Egyptian Dream, Mathilde “Missy” de Morny (Sloan Thompson), dressed like Indiana Jones, discovers Colette in the body of a sarcophagus. Knightley, levitating toward the surface, sits in the same manner in the photograph above. Once Colette fully emerges, the two engage in an erotic dance. Wide shots frame Morny kneeling before Colette, reinforcing their Sapphic rapport, and the scene ends with a medium shot of the two kissing on stage.

The film goes to great lengths to narrate Colette’s ongoing relationships with Mathilde de Morny and Georgie Raoul-Duval as a reflection of the rather open marriage she and Willy maintained until their divorce. In the orientalist Egyptian dream sequence, as in the passages from Claudine s’en va and Chéri, exotic tropes and sexuality grant Colette access to an audience of French theater-goers and readers eager for surface-level intrigue and colonial drama.

In the end, Colette highlights France’s fin-de-siècle fascination with colonial décor and scenarios, offering an entrée into belle époque spectacle. The colonial contours of the film also allow viewers to dig deeper into Colette’s literary work and biography to understand how and from where these themes emerge. Still, as reviewers have remarked, the film hardly portrays a full picture of Colette’s radical personal and literary agenda. One might wonder, too, what a Colette might look like if the film focused more on the lives of minor characters like Polaire. If Colette’s legacy remains one of radical feminist sexual politics, what types of cracks appear under the lens of a more intersectional feminism, attuned to the meaning and accumulation of colonial themes in her life and work?

Notes

  1. Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier, Creating Colette Vol. I: From Ingenue to Libertine, 1873-1913 (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1998), 326. Return to text.
  2. Francis and Gontier, Creating Colette, 327. Return to text.
  3. Francis and Gontier, 176. Return to text.
  4. Francis and Gontier, 178. Return to text.
  5. Colette, Claudine s’en va (Editions du groupe “Ebooks libres et gratuities,” 2004), 118. Return to text.
  6. “Jamaican Page” The Daily Gleaner, August 15, 1910, 1. Return to text.
  7. Polaire, Polaire, par elle-même (Paris: Éditions Eugène Figuière, 1933), 82. Return to text.
  8. Colette, Chéri (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1920), 154. Return to text.

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