Lady Chatterly (Movie Review)

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French filmmaker Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterly is a magnificent film. It strips the celebrated D.H. Lawrence novel, which I’ve always found interesting but impenetrable, to its critical core, while creating a portrait of Lawrence’s class politics as well as his longing for passion over obligation. The film opens today at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose.

Constance, Lady Chatterly, is the wife of Sir Clifford Chatterly, a soldier crippled from World War I. The couple moves to Wragby, the estate near the mine that presumably provides much of the family’s wealthy. With Clifford’s immobility, Constance takes to wandering the grounds of the estate, and meets up with the gamekeeper, Oliver Parkin, a rough-hewn, taciturn chap with whom she quickly forms a crush and begins an affair.ladychatterly1a.jpg

As the secret affair progresses, other social expectations of Parkin and, more immediately, Constance, come into play. Since Sir Clifford’s injuries leave him unable to father children, he agrees to let Constance seek — secretly — another father for the child, but with stipulations that the child have a heritiage that is “at least decent,” in class terms — a that rules Parkin out, making the clandestine affair even more dangerous since, of course, Constance wants to have and raise Parkin’s child.

As Constance and Parkin become more intimate, Parkin turns out to have as rich an inner life as Constance — in his youth, his mother told him his daydreams made him just like a girl. This revelation occurs late in the film, and it’s only then, close to the film’s denoument, that you really start to understand what Constance sees in Parkin.

Lady Chatterly is marked by stirring performances. Marina Hands turns in what I read as a bright-eyed, dreamy Constance troubled with the frustrations of the too-rigid world — not just her own social and cultural obligations, but the injustice of class overall, a fact underlined by her encounters with Sir Clifford’s mine workers. Jean-Louis Coulloch’h’s Parkin is a rough, practical and in many ways emotionless man within whom dwells a delirious passion, so often weighed down with depression. Constance and Oliver open up new worlds, each for the other. It’s all the cliches you want it to be — every hackneyed romance novel stereotype, rendered with the kind of principled subtlety that both suits the era and makes the subject matter feel fresh despite it’s having been beaten into submission by judges and English teachers alike for eighty-plus years.

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The D.H. Lawrence novel known as Lady Chatterly’s Lover is actually the third version of the story that Lawrence wrote. The versions are sometimes described as “drafts,” but when Lawrence finished a version he set it aside and later started from scratch, so the three versions are remarkably different in a variety of details — for example, no dialogue is the same between version two, John Thomas and Lady Jane (from which this film is adapted), and the third version usually regarded as definintive.

French filmmaker Pascale Ferran says of the third version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover: “Certain aspects of the book excited me, but in my view, it was an impossible book to adapt, unless it were an adaptation so free that I wouldn’t have dared to think of it. It must be said that [the third version] is pretty verbose, and in that respect, the book has aged badly. It’s as though  Lawrence, in veiw of his subject’s eminently subversive nature and the censorship that he was anticipating, felt obliged to theorize the novel’s thesis through his characters’ voices: love is stronger than all class barriers.”

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Even so, it seems like Lawrence’s message was diluted by his fear of crossing those boundaries. In the third version, Constance’s lover was a former army officer, putting him almost in the same class as Constance. Here, Parkin should have been a miner.

When Ferran discovered John Thomas and Lady Jane, with its simpler and more direct take on the story and themes, she decided it would serve better for a film adaptation than the third version.

Thank God she did; as impenetrable as I found the third version, there’s a gorgeous story here to be told, and Pascale’s interpretation is a rich version as overgrown with visual symbolism as the Wragby estate is with Lawrence’s fecund and highly symbolic vegetation.

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What’s more, it’s somewhat depressing to view this film both in the consideration of history and in the context of Hollywood’s recently puerile output; there’s full frontal nudity of both Hands and Coulloc’h, in an almost textbook example of how sex and nudity can be used with sensibility as an integral part of a larger story. I’m not sure the MPAA would agree.

The Cesar awards are France’s equivalent of the Oscars, and Lady Chatterly walked away with five of them: Best French Film, Best Actress for Marina Hands as Constance, Best Literary Adaptation, Best Costume Design, and Best Cinematography. Since I haven’t mentioned those last two aspects of this flick, let me tell you that the costumes/sets and the cinematography are nothing short of amazing: in every way, the visuals of Lady Chatterly are a feast, sexy and inspiring from every angle.

If you’ve an interest in eroticism in literature, then Lady Chatterly’s Lover, love it or hate it, is a piece so critical to history that it can’t be ignored. More importantly, it’s a beautiful story that suffered in its best-known version from Lawrence’s reticence in telling it. Ferran’s told it in a new way, and it’s lovely.

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Photos courtesy of Kino International. Used with permission.

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