Lady Chatterley

All self-respecting critics and artists—not just those that do it professionally, but amateurs too—eventually become aware of the importance of context. Greatness and badness don’t exist in isolation, but in comparative contexts. Importance and influence frequently stand in as synonyms for greatness. Sometimes we have to mediate the difference between art we don’t like, but must respect on a social, historical, technical, or other contextual level, and, likewise, art we like that isn’t successful on any established standards. In considering all of that, it’s sometimes interesting to willfully forgo it and walk into works as blank slates with little-to-no knowledge of the various important contexts that surround. That sums up my approach to Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley; it’s a three-and-a-half hour film adaptation of a novel I haven’t read (in any incarnation), and is, in itself, only one in a long line of such adaptations I haven’t seen.

My knowledge of Lady Chatterley was limited to the basics of it being an infamous D.H. Laurence novel that was controversial and censored for its frank sexual content and swearing; I know it was a novel that became one of the many crux’s for the sexual revolution. In the world of film I know that it had become something of a laughable legend, providing the fodder for a bevy of soft-core adaptations such as the one by Just Jaeckin, the “auteur” behind Emmanuelle, that also starred the actress who played Emmanuelle, Sylvia Krystel. I knew that Ferran’s adaptation had been critically hailed, winning numerous Cesar awards, including for Best Film in 2007. Therefore, it was with blissful ignorance, but palpable anticipation, that I went into the film, anxious to discern what all of the fuss was about.

The film stars Marina Hands as the titular Lady Constance Chatterlay, a young woman married to her husband, Clifford (Hippilyte Girardot), who has come back from the war completely paralyzed from the waist down. Constance’s father is concerned that if she remains at home, never venturing out into the world to enjoy life or her youth, that she’ll eventually suffer physical and mental melancholy. Clifford relates this to Constance, but she thinks nothing of it and tries to conform with her duties as housewife. One day, she spies her estate’s gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo’ch), bathing with his shirt off. She becomes physically flustered and runs away, but finds herself returning to his cabin “to relax”. Eventually the two engage in a relationship which rejuvenates Constance, but her marriage and their differences in social class may to spoil any hope for a long and fruitful relationship.

Perhaps it goes without saying that literary adaptations frequently prove problematic in cinema. This becomes truer as the source material relies more and more on elements that can’t be directly reproduced on film, such as the thoughts of characters. It’s quite often that I find myself painfully aware of the lack of literary narration when watching adaptations; it comes in the form of a kind of pregnant silence, or over-reaching on the parts of the filmmakers to express in visuals what had been expressed through words. While film and literature can both be incredibly suggestive, they suggest in different ways, just like they show and tell in different ways, and it oftne behooves filmmakers to take advantage of the ambiguity and abstraction of images to merely suggest things that in novels can be explicit.

Director Pascale Ferran seems to recognize this, and Lady Chatterley is one of the rare films that’s able to find the right mixture between literature, theater, and pure cinema. Ferran retains the costume drama element that is such a distinct element of classic literary adaptations. But unlike films that play up the sumptuousness of their production, everything in Lady Chatterley is understated. This is clearly set in the past, but there’s a humbleness even in the richest costumes. Ferran seems to be more interested in the power of look and dress to express character and psychology then its surface aesthetics; Constance, for instance, begins in costumes that conceal her body and beauty, but slowly finds herself in more revealing costumes (and, frequently, nothing at all) as the film wears on, echoing her growing sense of liberation. Unfortunately, Ferran does occasionally resort to using inter-titles and a superfluous (though, thankfully, infrequent) voiceover to signal the passage of time and other key events.

From theater Ferran retains the importance of the language, and not just what is said, but how it’s said. For such a long film, Lady Chatterley isn’t especially loquacious, and that’s primarily because Ferran knows that what’s left unsaid is frequently more important than the dialogue itself. The film certainly has an absorbing intimacy that grows in intensity over time. Ferran takes special care in shot selection, frames and editing; early, banal mid-shots and shot-reverse-shot dominate Constance’s formally restrained world. But her relationship with Parkin brings a greater looseness; handheld shots begin appearing more frequently, lush landscapes replace confining interiors, and close-ups seek to penetrate the characters’ minds, emotions, while simultaneously melding them together. The editing is a mix of straight-cuts and fades that signal the passage of time, but, interestingly, Ferran often chooses discrete jump-cuts and fades within scenes, implying the transience of such blissful moments.

Laurence’s novel was said to be a celebration of the freeing power of sex that was also wrapped in mysticism and social criticism, especially class-consciousness. It’s interesting that Ferran chose the second of Laurence’s three versions, which is said to be more natural and character driven than the more elaborate and expansive (and popular) third and final version. Ferran’s vision of Lady Chatterley represents more of a return to a nature, where sexuality presents an ecstatic union that transcends class by emphasizing our quintessential sameness underneath it all. Considering Ferran listed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul as an influence, especially his Blissfully Yours, her focus on the combination of nature and sex isn’t surprising. But while Ferran presents a distinctly romantic vision, it is not one that’s overly optimistic or blind; it’s especially fascinating how the film transitions from the sex scenes into those of dialogue, or from the natural (even animalistic or spiritual) union of man on the basest level, to the rigors of separating social constructs.

The sex scenes themselves are superbly rendered, primarily thanks to the combination of excellent actors and a director who realizes that such scenes, when executed adeptly, can be as much about revealing character as anything else. In the film, Constance’s sexual encounters with Parkin almost serve as markers for her character progression, from the naïve, demure girl who experiences sex with a reserved curiosity, to the mature woman who objectifies Parkin’s body, revealing that she likes to touch him, and be touches by him, and straddles him until she reaches her own climax. Ferran’s handling of the sex scenes is remarkably diverse; for the first, she allows it to play out in real time in single shot, focusing solely on Constance’s face, and following through to her departure. While in others, she elides the sex entirely, cutting to the post-coital moments of rest, or talk, or silent reveling. The film certainly stands as a testament to the theory that more explicitness doesn’t necessarily equal more eroticism.

The film is not without nudity, but most of the sex scenes-especially the early ones—occur with the characters almost fully clothed. The most nudity isn’t directly related to sex, but in the reunion of man and nature and curiosity. In one late scene, Constance invites Parkin to bed, but not before telling him to take off his pants so she can view his erection (he equally tells her to take off her shirt), which later leads to her light-hearted wonderment of how his penis has shrunk when awakes in the morning. The other scene of explicit nudity more obviously accompanies the “return to nature” theme when Constance strips to run naked in the rain, leading Parkin to eventually follow her lead as the two end up making love in the rain and the mud.

Standing in stark contrast to the vivaciousness of Constane and Parkin’s relationship is Clifford, a man paralyzed by war and incapable of sex. Clifford represents the war between a lively mind and a broken body, as he struggles to be independent with a motorized wheelchair (that often won’t cooperate). But, more importantly, is the source of Clifford’s injury: the war itself. If Lady Chatterley is celebrating the rejuvenating, liberating, joy and power of sexual union, it’s equally denouncing the social structures that prevent it, or dictate the rules by which it can take place. It’s society that has created the wars that has crippled Clifford, rendering him impotent, but it’s the beauty and acceptance of nature that has lead Constance to self-discovery, and Parkin to find needed companionship to defeat his loneliness.

Appreciation should certainly be given to the film’s performances, whom navigate their complex characters, and difficult situations with a great aplomb. Marina Hands is especially wonderful in her transformation from a frumpy housewife to a gorgeous woman whose beauty emanates more from within than without. She’s equally believable during each step of her character arch whose totality constitutes nothing less than a complete transformation. But it’s truly Hands’ mastery of the minute facial and body gestures that denotes her change throughout. Coullo’ch as Parkin is more static, but in this instance his stoicism fits with his more enigmatic character. Coullo’ch exudes a quiet strength and confidence who slowly reveals the nuances of his character. Girardot is the most handicapped (metaphorically and literally) of the three, considering he’s given less screen time, but he personifies the intelligence and frustration of Clifford with a tremendous ease.

Some may balk at the length, and as much as I enjoyed the experience, I can’t unequivocally say that Lady Chatterley justifies its lengthy runtime. It also exists in a version that runs an hour less at 140 minutes, but I suspect that it would lack the richness of the full version, as it’s undeniably one of those surprising cinematic anomalies; it’s an epic in length, but chamber drama in cast and tone. This is a film that’s full of meditative, organic calm; a film that’s best viewed when one has the patience to sink into the hypnotic rhythms. It’s not so much demanding in story, character, or theme is it is demanding in close attention, because it’s a film that’s slow to reveal its depths. But for those who are willing to sacrifice the time they’ll likely find one of the richest portrayals of human relationships and sexuality on screen.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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