How do you make "Lady Chatterley's Lover" speak to an audience in 2007? D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel was once the hottest thing out there short of a Tijuana bible. The story of an upper-class woman bursting societal restraints to sleep with her husband's gamekeeper, the book was considered by bluenoses to be offensive on almost all levels, and it was banned everywhere. You couldn't even buy it legally in this country until 1959.
Five decades later, every sexual act you can think of -- and plenty you can't -- can be found on the Internet. Again, how do you film Lawrence so he matters?
By emphasizing the one aspect of his writing that can still shock: his gentleness. Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" is sensual in escalating degrees of heat, but the film's eroticism, which is substantial, is laid on with a caress. The movie is a slow-motion swoon back into Eden -- a nature documentary about humans -- and it's hypnotic.
Actually, Ferran isn't adapting "Lady Chatterley's Lover" but an earlier version of the novel. (Lawrence wrote three in all, starting from scratch each time; the third is the famous one.) "John Thomas and Lady Jane" lacks the class tensions and defensiveness of the other versions, and it isn't angry. The subjects are intimacy and the wonder of lust giving way to the deeper wonders of love. The author almost called the book "Tenderness" before naming it after his lovers' pet names for their private parts.
Marinda Hands plays Lady Chatterley like a sleepwalker waking up. The actress has a wide face and high cheekbones, and her pre-Raphaelite curls are kept neatly tucked away. She's a Klimt painting waiting to happen. Only in the privacy of her boudoir does Constance coolly regard her naked body in a mirror, as if gazing at a wild animal in the zoo.
Her husband, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), is literally dead from the waist down, a paralyzed World War I veteran and civilized aristocrat whose mind is more on the mines he owns than with his wife. Constance takes long walks through the estate and slowly withers.
If you've read any version of the novel, it may take you a few scenes to get used to hearing Lawrence's words spoken in French. Nor does "Lady Chatterley" play fair by the rules of period films laid down by several decades of Merchant Ivory. Ferran slows the pace to a dead crawl, and she resists the urge to smother everything with soundtrack music. The Lady needs to hear the birdsong, and so do we.
The approach pays off. A viewer's metabolism eases down, to the point where a scene of Constance dozing in a chair outside the gamekeeper's cabin seems magical for its quiet observant length.
The gamekeper is named Parkin in this telling, and as played by Jean-Louis Coulloc'h he's hardly the rude barnyard stud of the final novel. He's rough but sensitive, appealingly average in a lumpy and very French way. Above all, Parkin is as out of step with his times as the woman napping on his porch. They're equals almost from the start, and the couple's nearly wordless dance into the physical is both touching and unbearably sensuous.
The movie is almost entirely without dramatic conflict. What danger there is lives inside these lovers and is tamed by their discovery of it.
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