French director Pascale Ferran makes a different kind of 'Lady Chatterley'
By Richard von Busack
TO REMIND people that Lady Chatterley's Lover was once considered a dirty book isn't good enough; these days, you have to explain what a dirty book was. (What did we all do before the Internet?) In three separate versions of his novel, D.H. Lawrence tried to combat English prudery with a pastoral vision of the love of a knighted coal magnate's wife with Mellors, the man who guards the pheasants on one of his estates. The affair was made possible since her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley, had been paralyzed and unmanned by a war wound. Director Pascale Ferran adapts Lawrence's John Thomas and Lady Jane, a version of the novel far less familiar than the one the author had printed last. Ferran calls the official Lady Chatterley's Lover "verbose."
There is a lot of talk in the classic—let alone the matter of how risqué Lawrence's ideas must have looked in the late 1920s. Our times are less puritanical in most of the ways that matter, and today we don't believe as much in the hereditary class system. The evidence that a healthy sex life will lead to liberation in all matters seems weak now. Take, for example, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry; Adam Sandler's character copulates to beat the band and remains a peevish, chauvinistic, hateful pseudo-adult.
But this is a different take on Lawrence's story than we have seen before. As played by Jean-Louis Coullo'ch, Oliver Parkin—the mild-tempered divorced gamekeeper—bears almost no resemblance to the studly Mellors. In almost all ways, Ferran has stripped the Englishness from this account. Verbose the novel might have been, but it was something more fragrant, full of dialect sweet talk that proved that the lady and her lover were literally speaking different languages. In the way Ferran stages the meetings between Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands, clearly the Isabelle Huppert type) and the mild-mannered Parkin, the dialogue is ineffably French, logical and debonair. Nothing could be less like our popular idea of Lady Chatterley's Lover, of the unstoppable force of the working class meeting the immovable object of the ruling class. (The lower-class aspects of Lady Chatterley's Lover explain why the British cartoonist Hunt Emerson did such a superior graphic novel adaptation of it—affectionately lampooning the fustian side of the book and celebrating the sex.)
This Parkin is an older and sadder man than we expect. The autumnal frost of middle age lies on Parkin, whose beard stubble is silver and whose hair is thinning, and who has a slight bit of paunch. Ferran takes her luxurious time setting up the tryst, evoking a substantial amount of erotic heat as it simmers. In France, Ferran is a celebrated filmmaker akin to Terrence Malick; this is her first film in 11 years. It won a scad of French academy awards—one of them for costuming, which sounds like a joke (truly, nudity is the best clothing).
It would be a joke, except Constance wears vixenish hunter's reds and scarlet velvet sheaths; considering the golden reds of the woods, Lady Chatterley is probably the best fall-colored movie since the rousse Rene Russo starred in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. Ferran serves up color, a neglected aspect of the movies now, thanks to CGI, with a serious attention to the way it creates mood. This is a woman's film, so most of the sexuality takes place in the faces, not in the bodies. And it has an elegant open ending, the perfect example of how such a thing is done: finishing on a precise moment of realized happiness. It's the way one wants an affair to close if it is closing, or must close: with sad satisfaction and no guilt.
Lady Chatterley (Unrated; 168 min.), directed by Pascale Ferran, written by Roger Bohbot, Ferran and Pierre Trividic, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence, photographed by Julien Hirsch and starring Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coullo'ch, opens July 27 at selected theaters.
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