Today we focus on those celebrities who go by one name, and are world renowned by that one name. There’s Liberace (real name Wladziu Valentino Liberace), Madonna (Madonna Louise Ciccone), Bono (Paul David Hewson), Divine (Harris Glen Milstead), Banksy (OK, we still don’t know Banksy’s real name). Over on the literary side there was Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet) and, of course, author and actress Colette.

Born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in a small French village in 1873, the first part of her name, at least according to this lavish, period piece of a biography, was dropped soon after the turn of the century, at a time when the once shy and innocent farm girl was finding her footing and beginning to come into her own in Paris.

The film tells a simple, straightforward story, but one that’s filled with complicated people. Colette (Keira Knightley) was swept off her feet by the dashing and unabashedly opinionated Willy (Dominic West, unrecognizable under facial whiskers and seemingly wearing a fat suit), a successful Parisian author who would visit her on her parents’ farm for trysts in the barn. Keeping with that first name business (his actual name was Henry Gauthier-Villars), but his stories, reviews, and books only carried the name Willy.

A whirlwind courtship ends up with them married in Paris, where his society friends are shocked to find that he’s settled down, and her reaction to those friends at a salon is that they’re shallow and pretentious.

The leisurely paced but somehow swiftly told story wastes no time revealing secrets, both big and small. Willy has gained fame as a writer, and is ready to take the step up to becoming a novelist, but it turns out that he’s only an idea man, and that he has all sorts of people doing the actual writing for him, with his name going on whatever is published. In short order, Colette finds out that he and she have different ideas of what marriage means. When she catches him with a courtesan, his immediate, red-faced reaction is, “I’ll never sleep with her again,” followed by, “But this is what men do.”

There’s no doubt that this guy is a cad, living off other people’s talent, cheating on his wife. But he somehow charms his “workers” into doing his writing and convinces her that he has “a bruised and aching heart” over what’s happened between them.

Willy also, for various reasons, has money problems. One solution which, after hearing his wife telling fanciful stories of her childhood, and which he suggests to her, is, “You could write; you could be Willy’s next novel.” (It’s never explained why he speaks in the third person.)

She has some doubt, but she plunges into it, handwrites what will become the book “Claudine at School,” enjoys the process, but is dashed by Willy’s criticism of it, and relegates it to a dresser drawer.

Of course, it was published, under the name Willy, as were more Claudine books, as was the novella that became the movie “Gigi.” But the film concentrates more on the bumps in their shaky marriage: His refusal to stop seeing other women, her interest in also seeing other women, more money problems due to his careless ways, her demands to have her name on her books.

But it also gets into how the character Claudine became a sort of pop icon in early 20th-century Paris, getting young women to dress the way she was described, kind of an early Annie Hall.

Boasting a castful of just about perfect performances — one by Denise Gough as Colette’s lover Missy (full name Mathilde de Morny) is a standout — and gorgeous costumes, sets, and cinematography, the film keeps watching Colette grow as a woman. It isn’t completely clear about the exact cause of that name change, but it ends at just the right point, when she is beginning a whole new life and her celebrity status is just starting to take hold.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Colette”
Written by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Directed by Wash Westmoreland
With Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough
Rated R