The raciest thing I ever saw my mother do was read a brown-paper-covered Penguin edition of D.H. Lawrences Lady Chatterleys Lover on the London Underground. She didnt fool all the other passengers carrying similarly disguised copies, and though I was only 12 years old in that fall of 1960 a far cry from being 12 now when it comes to sexual precocity she didnt fool me. At school, the air already hung heavy with gamekeeper jokes, and the book, banned since its first publication in 1928, had just survived a splashy obscenity trial in which E.M. Forster and other luminaries of Eng. Lit. testified to the novels artistic merits despite multiple deployments of the word fuck and frank descriptions of extramarital sex between an unfulfilled milady and a lowly groundsman on her country estate.
In fact, as I discovered after fishing the book from Mums bedside drawer while she was at work, Lady Chatterleys Lover is way more talk than action. It wasnt all that saucy then, and it certainly isnt now. Which may be why Pascale Ferran has based her magnificent Lady Chatterley on an earlier version of Lawrences novel, the one with the promisingly bawdy English-language title of John Thomas and Lady Jane a reference to the well-exercised genitals of the secret lovers. Or maybe not. Ferrans Lady Chatterley isnt remotely bawdy, but it is candidly, tenderly carnal in a way rarely seen in contemporary cinema, where sexuality crouches, trapped like a frightened deer, between prissiness and prurience.
Coming from a director who hangs out with pomo ironists like Arnaud Desplechin, this is surprisingly naturalistic filmmaking that refuses to engage with the feminist theories that have sent Lawrences posthumous reputation careening from literary god to chauvinist devil. In fact, Lady Chatterley is a resolutely unintellectual movie whose primary language is its earthy physicality. For all Lawrences advocacy of doing rather than talking, his lovers never shut up, forever arguing about class, a womans place and the evils of civilization. But theres only one talker in Lady Chatterley her ladyships coolly cerebral husband, Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), embittered by the Great War that deprived him of the use of his own nether regions and resigned his young wife, Constance (Marina Hands), to a life of decorous misery. Until one day, consoling herself with a solitary walk around her unspeakably beautiful estate, she happens upon their unglamorously named gamekeeper Parkin, stripped to the waist, washing his rippling torso. Constance flees in apparent terror, but we find her next at home, stripping off her virginal bloomers to inspect her unspent body in the mirror. Pretty soon, shes commandeered a spare key to the bare hut where Parkin (played by the relatively unknown stage actor Jean-Louis Coulloch, who has the doe eyes and bruised sadness of a ruined Brando) cuts wood and raises pheasants.
An ethereal but unpolished beauty swaddled in sensible skirts, Lady C. absorbs first with wonder and then with growing delight the taciturn mans stubby hands and thick, powerful body. The lovemaking that flows from the wordless companionship of this Beauty and Beast is awkward, fumbling and unlyricized by music at first. But the couple soon becomes freer and more passionately mutual, with cinematographer Julien Hirschs camera attuned to the rapturous journey between their nakedness and the changing seasons around them. Ferran stages no fewer than six sex scenes, and at least two have a sublime silliness how sexy could anyone look running around in the rain, breasts bobbing, clad only in Mary Poppins boots? that both invites and defies ridicule. The movie flirts with wide-eyed naiveté, and the cameras unhurried contemplation of birds and flowers giddily invokes a National Geographic special, but Lady Chatterley is not without its sly interpretive strategies. For one thing, Ferran rereads the novel as a story of mutual liberation not, as is often the case with Lawrence, a male teach-in on the evils of society and the delights of sex. Quietly, ecstatically and, above all, experientially, the movie both keeps faith with and holds in check Lawrences romantic belief in the primacy of nature in all its forms over civilization. The supreme achievement of this lovely film all three rhythmic, leisurely hours of it is that what borders on faintly fascistic body worship in the novel instead feels as perfectly natural to us as it does to the lovers. Lawrence would kvell.
LADY CHATTERLEY | Directed by PASCALE FERRAN | Written by FERRAN and ROGER BOHBOT, adapted from John Thomas and Lady Jane by D.H. LAWRENCE | Produced by GILLES SANDOZ | Released by Kino International | Selected theaters