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The Director Who Went From Shooting Porn Movies to Prestige Film

How Wash Westmoreland’s early films helped him gets under the skin of ‘Colette.’

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It’s little known but hardly secret that Wash Westmoreland, the gay director and co-writer of the dirty Downton Abbey period piece Colette, about the androgynous 19th Century French novelist who wrote the book behind Gigi, has roots in the porn industry. The writer-director, who co-authored the film with his husband Richard Glatzer, created porn under the name Wash West (also a Center City, Philadelphia neighborhood).

They’re best known for shepherding Julianne Moore to a Best Actress Oscar for Still Alice before Glatzer passed in 2015 from ALS. By that time, Westmoreland had directed Toolbox and Plugged In, movies with titles that fairly explicitly spoke for themselves, carrying X ratings and, it seems to have turned out, providing good training for the intimacy and eroticism of the more mainstream films to come.

Westmoreland’s crossover film co-directed with Glatzer was 2001’s R-rated The Fluffer, a post-Boogie Nights comedy about a young man in Hollywood who gets the titular job of motivating the lead actor in the porn film within the film. Among West’s better-known pornographic works is The Hole, a parody of the Japanese horror film The Ring, in which watching a creepy videotape presages the viewer’s death. In this 2002 version, a group of heterosexual jocks find themselves in the precarious position of viewing a fuzzy video at a rundown motel. Afterwards, they receive a call warning that they will turn gay within a week. Sex, ambivalence and some coming out ensues.

“On some level The Hole remains a horror movie for those ‘straight’ homophobic viewers who believe that merely seeing a gay porn movie will turn them gay,” writes Michael Kimmel in his academic book The Sexual Self: The Construction of Sexual Scripts.

Kimmel, a SUNY Stony Brook sociologist and gender studies specialist, quotes Westmoreland at length. With porn rooted in fantasy, Westmoreland explained: “Most people think that the plot is the story, but it is also what the audience wants to happen.” The filmmaker goes on to describe his method when directing Naked Highway, in which the heroes don’t couple with each other immediately although they do jump into sex with others. “…[O]ften porn will have no suspense because the people meet and five seconds later they’re dropping their pants. There’s no anticipation.”

The choreography of sex as a building block of story and narrative tension is central to the genre. And that experience – and Westmoreland’s apparent comfort with fluid gender identities — makes him an ideal director for tackling a looser-limbed Colette biopic with Keira Knightley in the title role and tangling with men, women and women who identify as men.

Director Wash Westmoreland and actors Keira Knightley and Dominic West from ‘Colette’ attend The Hollywood Reporter 2018 Sundance Studio (Photo by John Parra/Getty Images for for The Hollywood Reporter)

As Knightley effused to The Advocate: “When I was little I always thought that I would grow up to be a man. It was because I was a very powerful little creature and all of the girls on the playground that was where the power was. I could see outside the playground and the men had all the power. And it just made sense that I would grow up into that. “

She was clearly ready for the dance, and Westmoreland’s choreography of sexual variety begins almost immediately. When the older Parisian suitor Willy (Dominic West) comes to woo the young pigtailed Colette (Knightley) at her parents’ farm, she runs to meet him in the privacy of the barn. There’s a joy and urgency in their embrace – with Colette climbing on top fully clothed – that allows for the mutuality of their affection. She is reaching for adulthood; he is reaching back to youth. Additionally, it’s clear throughout that nature-loving farm girl Colette has firsthand knowledge of birds, bees, cows, goats, sheep….

After they wed and their relationship matures, the interplay of jealousy and their clash of fantasies manifest themselves. Willy continues to carry on in a louche way, cheating with that drippiest excuse, “she meant nothing to me,” to paraphrase. In turn, the future novelist refuses to play the role of wallflower wife, leading her husband to become jealous and possessive at a salon because she is flirting with a pair of newlyweds. Colette both startles and assuages Willy with the assurance that she wasn’t interested in the husband but the wife.

With Willy’s permission, Colette takes up with a ravishing redheaded wealthy American Georgie Raoul-Duval (Poldark‘s Eleanor Tomlinson). And Westmoreland nurtures (fluffs?) the audience’s erotic fantasies along with these stunningly posed art nouveau goddesses touching and tasting each other, surrounded by a seductively rich décor set off by the perfect rosy nipple. Willy, not to be left out, now enters a three-way of rotating pairs, and the sex between he and Georgie seems greedy, more detached from emotion.

As much of a betrayal as Willy’s going behind Colette’s back to stroke her mistress, his bigger transgression occurs on the night that he asks the author to role play as her fictional alter-ego, the schoolgirl Claudine. She reluctantly yet obediently dons the outfit he’s laid out for her on their bed: the prim black dress associated with that character, the white collar. The suggestion is that his fantasy requires her to regress – and from the sex that follows, it’s no aphrodisiac for her.

As time passes, Willy acquires a younger, more pliant surrogate who happily dons the Claudine get-up. Almost unconsciously — or perhaps he’s simply thick and selfish — he begins to abandon his emotional connection with his extraordinary wife, while leaving her free to grow and, ultimately, grow away.

The most deeply emotional sex scene occurs between Colette and her next true love, the aristocratic once-married Missy (Denise Gough) who now wears top hats and tails and employs male pronouns. While the pair makes love they’re in constant communication, talking, taking each other’s emotional temperatures, peeling back the onions of each other’s psyches. And it’s only then, with Missy in suspenders and shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow and Colette on her back in the bed engaging in a sex act not yet seen on Downton Abbey, that one realizes how completely Westmoreland has taken his audience into new fantasy territory while maintaining period tropes. His choreography of intimacy is complete – and, for the character of Colette, she comes to own her identity and fluid sexuality in a way compatible with a revolutionary writer who reveled in a life of the senses, and the sexes.