As a high school student in the '60s, I read D.H. Lawrence's scandalous Lady Chatterley's Lover for the sex scenes. I had little awareness of the novel's larger social commentary and probably wouldn't have cared had I known. Pascale Ferran's current French version of the 1920s story about the torrid sexual relationship between a privileged young English wife and one of the servants on her husband's estate is serious and never purposely salacious. Nonetheless, I walked away from the film with the overwhelming feeling that it's mostly about the sex. Ferran adapted her Lady Chatterley from the penultimate draft of Lawrence's novel, a version titled John Thomas and Lady Jane, which were the terms the lovers used for their sexual organs. Though the characters have less edge, their story is still recognizable to readers of the final published version. Lady Constance (Marina Hands) is married to Lord Clifford Chatterley (Hippolyte Girardot), who was severely wounded in World War I and has been left paralyzed from the waist down. We aren't to judge him an entirely bad man, but he is profoundly depressed and seldom able to acknowledge Constance's efforts to provide him with loving care. The film provides us few details about the couple's relationship before Clifford's injury. Since they were already married, we presume the marriage was consummated before Clifford went off to war. But the picture insinuates that whatever sexual relationship they once had, it lacked much heat. Now, of course, they have no sex life at all, and Constance has the innocence and sexual curiosity of a virgin.
Then one day Constance marches through the woods to place an order for fresh pheasant with Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), Clifford's gameskeeper. Parkin isn't young " he may even be older than Clifford " and he isn't conventionally handsome. He looks a bit like Marlon Brando at the dawn of middle-age. His large round face is creased and fleshy, and he's losing his hair. But he has a rugged manliness that stands in utter contrast to Clifford's delicate features. And as it happens, Constance first lays eyes on him when he's standing before a water pump with his shirt off giving himself a vigorous washing after a hot day of attending to whatever sweaty duties gameskeepers attend to. Constance doesn't quite roll her eyes and hyperventilate, but her yearning stare is 100 percent walla walla bing bang. And so the game is on.
Pretty soon Constance is stripping in front of her bedroom mirror and giving herself a sensuous ogle, showing her Lady Jane and yearning, presumably for a glimpse of Parkin's John Thomas. And we'll get there, but in a series of steps rather than one quick jump. Constance and Parkin work together over the nurturing of plants and animals until they fall into each other's arms and over time into a wild, naked cavort in a driving rainstorm culminating in a carnally ecstatic wallow in the mud.
The point, obviously, is that sex is natural and ought to be liberated from the kind of crimp exemplified in the Chatterleys' two-bedroom marriage. In service of this celebration of nature, Ferran includes repeated shots of cobalt skyscapes dotted with fleecy clouds, pristine streams gurgling through verdant meadows and flower after flower bursting into bloom. Much of this is objectively beautiful, but the strategy of including such shots and in such plenitude serves to lengthen the running time to more than two hours and 40 minutes, a burden the film's thin spine of narrative can't satisfactorily bear. The metaphor could have been effectively established with much greater economy. Moreover, Ferran repeatedly holds shots long after the viewing eye has digested all of the image's narrative information.
Lady Chatterley has been an artistic smash in France, garnering nine Cesar nominations and winning in five categories, including best picture and best actress. Hands' work is entirely deserving and everywhere convincing, her character's awakening to the pleasures of sexual intimacy recalling that of a child's discovery of chocolate. Coulloc'h did not carry home the Cesar, but he is excellent, too, artfully portraying a necessarily restrained man of the earth who is natural in his own body but out of his element in dealing with a woman of Constance's class. Lawrence, of course, was as much interested in the latter as the former. But here the gulf of differences between Constance and Parvin takes second place to slowly peeled stockings, the revealed female thigh and the moans of human lovemaking.
- Kino International
- Lady Chatterley bags the gameskeeper in D. H. Lawrence's scandalous classic.