Culture

Film & Television

Fake it so real: ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ and ‘Colette’

By Luke Goodsell
Two new films examine female writers who masquerade for very different reasons

“It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit,” goes Noël Coward’s famous line from his 1941 play, and later film, Blithe Spirit. In real life, it was a paradox that the publicly guarded, privately homosexual bon vivant knew all too well. Perhaps fittingly, Coward was one of the cultural luminaries whose personal letters were embellished by the American writer-turned-literary-fraud Lee Israel, who, for a brief period in the early 1990s, successfully passed off forgeries purporting to be the letters of such noted artists. Israel was also queer, and developed a knack for performing to, and duly subverting, society’s expectations.

In Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, adapted by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name, we first meet the then-middle-aged author (Melissa McCarthy) slugging whiskey at her soon-to-be-ex copy desk job, grey hairs bleeding through a shaggy Beatles cut, shabby herringbone blazer pulled over a patterned vest. Israel’s brief flush of success – two reasonably selling biographies, followed by a flop portrait of fashion tycoon Estée Lauder – has since curdled into a life adrift from the world she once knew. She spends her days mostly alone in the unkempt Manhattan apartment she shares with a population of dead flies, her indifferent cat, and the nagging suspicion that her days as an author are over. To call her an outsider among the glamour of New York’s literary circles isn’t the half of it. It’s 1991, a time when the excesses of the previous decade still lingered, the prolific military fetishist Tom Clancy dominated the bestseller lists, and American Psycho the column inches.

“I’m a 51-year-old woman who likes cats more than people,” Israel spits between expletives at her fed-up agent, played by a wonderfully acidic Jane Curtin. At an obnoxious literary party, an insufferable Tom Clancy (Kevin Carolan) holds court, dismissing writer’s block as a myth invented by lazy scribes. Ostracised from these dubious social circles, Israel gravitates toward another lost soul: fellow alcoholic and queer fringe dweller Jack Hock, played with relish by Richard E. Grant – his neckerchiefs, trench coats and permanently soused wit drawing an unmistakable line to the actor’s enduring Withnail.

Disillusioned by an industry of macho bullshit, it’s little wonder that Israel pivots to fraud. Flat broke and thanklessly toiling on a biography of Fanny Brice, she discovers a letter from the late actor and, in quick succession, the lucrative market for the personal correspondence of the famous. Soon, Israel is forging salacious notes and passing them off as the real deal to unsuspecting book dealers and antiquarian traders, who in turn clamour to scoop up supposed private letters by the likes of Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich and Dorothy Parker. Heller, who has an eye for the deliciousness of getting away with stuff, shows Israel flipping over a TV to trace Coward’s signature through the glow of Poltergeist static, or book-marking her well-thumbed Portable Dorothy Parker with the mythically rare, but actually widely circulated two-dollar bill; each case a clever conflation of era and symbolism.

The film likewise revels in the willingness of people to believe what they wish to be true, connecting it to everything from Orson Welles’ gleeful art put-on F for Fake to the great J.T. LeRoy hoax, in which author Laura Albert scammed the desperate-to-be-hip cool crowd with embarrassing results. In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, we watch as Israel becomes similarly empowered by her creations and, maybe just a little, by the revenge she’s taking on a world that spurned her. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she quips to Hock at one point.

It’s refreshingly unusual, to say the least, for a major studio picture to deliver an empathetic portrait of a bitter, middle-aged lesbian that has little interest in a redemptive character arc, and McCarthy turns her generally broad comedic skills inward, to just as amusing, emotionally crumpled effect. In a sense, the character is familiar terrain for Heller, whose smart 2015 debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, similarly focused on a headstrong female character trying to find her way in an overwhelmingly male world. Israel and Hock even seem like a pair of teenage girls at points here, with a shared taste for mischief that extends, in one of the film’s funniest moments, to prank calling the former’s agent while pretending to be filmmaker Nora Ephron. (It’s a true story, apparently: Ephron once sent Israel a cease-and-desist for the unauthorised impersonation.)

While the film is certainly fleet and funny in its negotiation of literary high jinks, Heller and McCarthy have gotten at something much more perceptive in the details. It’s no coincidence that the subjects of Israel’s forgeries are in some way synonymous with queerness in pop culture – Coward, the bisexual Dietrich, and even Parker (“I hear she liked the girls,” a sniggering bookseller offers in one scene) – since the film sets about exploring Israel’s own sexuality, at first introducing phone conversations with her ex, and then a flirtation with a bookstore owner (Dolly Wells). Even as the narrative delivers on its comedic promise, the film flourishes as an account of queer identity – and of performing a role that society is willing to believe.

Israel’s “literary realness” – playing into the identity the (generally straight, male) literary world allows her to have – means her imitation becomes a subversive act, and she finds herself through performance. Impersonation frees up the actual Lee Israel: to become the distinguished troublemaker, raconteur, and openly queer women she needs to be. Fake it so real, as Courtney Love once noted, that you’re beyond fake.

One hundred years earlier, the French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette seemed to have the opposite problem. Though she would become one of her country’s most celebrated 20th-century artists, in the 1900s Colette was still a fledgling writer whose evocative novels, drawn from her girlhood experience, were packaged and sold to the public as the work of a Great Man – her editor and controlling husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka “Willy”. (As far as mononyms for self-styled male geniuses go, it certainly captured an essence.) Colette’s serialised Claudine books were outrageously successful, inspiring an industry of Belle Époque merchandising from soaps to dolls to freshly bobbed haircuts, and yet – in a depressingly familiar scenario – she remained in the shadows while Willy took all the credit. Colette was also privately queer and playing the role society demanded of her; one that, through art, she would eventually subvert and transcend.

In the new film Colette, directed by Wash Westmoreland, she is played by British actress Keira Knightley. Her Colette is a provincial girl swept up into the Parisian society orbit of Dominic West’s libertine Willy, a self-described “literary entrepreneur” who runs a writers’ sweatshop where his minions whip his salacious ideas into pulp fiction for the great unwashed. Willy gives Collette the chance to write for him, too, but dismisses the resultant novel as “too cloying, too feminine”. Later, desperate and broke, he reneges, and publishes the work under his own name. It’s a smash that seems to cement Willy’s delusion: that no one, he insists, would buy a book by a female writer. Underscoring the fraud, Washmoreland gives us a scene of a male singer appearing to hit impossible octaves, only for the camera to pan across to the female voice to whom he is miming.

There’s some cultural dissonance to overcome with Colette. It’s an American–British production surveying a quintessentially French period, the sort of film where everyone speaks in clipped English but scenes of writing are depicted in French, giving the whole thing the feel of something that’s been dubbed. And it takes time for Colette to emerge beyond Knightley, whose face is so synonymous with costume drama at this point that she can sometimes seem like a period-movie automaton. But Washmoreland, who made 2014’s Oscar bait Still Alice but, more importantly, the 2001 gay porn drama The Fluffer, has the right kind of deviant sensibility to take the film beyond stuffy historical piece. He gives Knightley range to move outside the period straightjacket, pushing her into places she’s seldom gone since David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. West, meanwhile, so good as a blowhard contemporary artist in The Square, is generous in his blustery, but not condescending, portrait of complicated masculinity. His Willy is a man who appears to genuinely adore his wife, permitting her sexual fluidity even as he dresses his own lovers as her creation.

Although Willy curated an inclusive private domain, his outward career behaviour is a dangling hook for a modern audience weaned on the spirit of #MeToo. Willy’s private permissiveness stands in contrast to his vision of public presentation, in which Colette is kept firmly in the background – in one scene, he literally locks her in a room for hours and orders her to write. It isn’t hard to see the symmetries with Lee Israel’s tangled web – only by being presented as another version of herself, a fake that the public would believe, could Colette’s work be accepted. In both cases, these women found themselves through an assumed, fantastical identity – as so many outsiders and the marginalised have done for so long – assuming what the public wants of them to gain acceptance, only to subvert it.

Colette’s queerness also becomes much more overt. Liberated by the affections of Mathilde “Missy” de Morny (Denise Gough), a transgressive aristocrat who lands upon the picture in jodhpurs and men’s coats like she’s attending a Christine and the Queens show in the future, Colette discovers a means of expression both sexual and professional – via that time-honoured means of escaping oneself: acting. (The couple’s onstage kiss in 1907, moments after Colette rose, symbolically, from an Egyptian sarcophagus, caused a cultural riot.) Empowered by her immersion in this newfound sense of queer sisterhood, Colette is able to stand up to Willy and take ownership of her work. “You found me and moulded me to your own design, your own desires,” Knightley seethes in the film’s keynote moment. “You thought I could never break free!”

Colette would be afforded a happy ending. After freeing herself from Willy, she went on, among her many achievements, to be feted as one of France’s great authors, writing well-received books and plays, earning a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and penning the musical Gigi, which would take on another life as Hollywood spectacle.

As did Israel, after a fashion. Rather than admonish its antihero, Can You Ever Forgive Me? concludes with Israel on probation and nursing a well-earned drink in a bar – brazenly in lieu of her court-mandated AA meeting. It’s an appropriate final note of deceit for a woman who once claimed to be proud of her forgeries. And why shouldn’t she have been? All’s fair when the system is stacked against you.

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is screening now; Colette opens on December 20.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

Keira Knightley in Colette and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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