Running time 168 minutes
Directed by Pascale Ferran
Written by Pascale Ferran and Roger Bohbot
Starring Marina Hands and Jean-Louis Coulloc’h
Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley, from a screenplay by Ms. Ferran and Roger Bohbot, adapted from Lady Chatterley et l’homme des bois (John Thomas and Lady Jane), the second version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, leads us into the thickets of Lawrence’s fiercely tender saga of a sexual communion between a man and a woman of different classes, but similarly affected in their enforced solitudes by the wonders and glories of nature. Tenderness takes time and patience to express on the screen, and Ms. Ferran has taken 168 minutes to depict the full flowering of a great love at one with nature, and for 80 years at odds with the social establishment.
Thanks to the copious Kino production notes for Ms. Ferran’s film, I have learned for the first time that Lawrence (1885-1930) wrote three autonomous versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and, initially, only the third version was published, in 1928, two years before Lawrence’s death, and is the version most of us have read amid all the howls of censorious outrage. At least two reportedly mediocre screen adaptations appeared in 1955 and 1981, much too early for the filmmakers to avail themselves of the very recent relaxation of the taboos against male and female nudity and even simulated sexual intercourse. There are no fewer than six sex scenes in Ms. Ferran’s film, and each represents an advance in trust and involvement on the part of the two partners in passion. Whereas many contemporary sex scenes tend to dehumanize the participants, those in Ms. Ferran’s film only enhance the shared humanity of her co-protagonists.
There are only bits and pieces of a backstory to take us to the year 1921, when a young married couple, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot) and Constance (Marina Hands) Chatterley, move to Wragby, one of the Chatterley family properties. There, Chatterley becomes the owner and operator of a coal mine in the area. Constance Reid had been 23 years old when she married Cambridge graduate, lieutenant and mine owner Clifford Chatterley in 1917. After a brief honeymoon, he was sent to fight in the Belgian trenches, from which he returned badly wounded and a permanent invalid in a wheelchair.
Constance is restive but uncomplaining in her new routine of rural solitude after her lively social life in London and traveling on the Continent. She begins exploring the woods around her with their overabundance of all kinds of foliage, woodland creatures and birds. One day she comes upon a man bathing by a stream with his back to her. She becomes fixated on that image, and one day she introduces herself to the gamekeeper, Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h). At subsequent meetings, she becomes familiar with his various duties on the property, including his building a bird shelter for the smaller birds. When she tries to grasp one of the little birds and fails, he assists her by putting his arm around her. As it moves affectionately across her body, she responds by laying her hands on his. When he politely suggests that they go inside the small shed, she assents with a half-smile of vulnerable curiosity. Inside, he proceeds by small stages to remove her undergarments and he enters her the first time while they are both almost fully clothed.
There ensues a period of futile reluctance on her part, and burgeoning suspicion on his. She learns eventually that he has been unhappily married to a woman who ran off with another man, and thereafter he has learned to live alone without human companionship. Throughout the period of their subsequent meetings there is never the slightest recourse to a fear of discovery for cheap suspense. It helps that the two lovers are so completely isolated from the outside world, and that Constance’s husband is so profoundly indifferent to his wife’s inner life and outer movements. He is locked in his own world in which he has found a measure of peace and consolation.
Seldom have I seen a film in which the two lead performers are given such an enormous burden of self-revelation without the traditional accoutrements and contrivances of narrative. The inspired casting of Ms. Hands and Mr. Coulloc’h eased some of these burdens, as did the fact that Mr. Coulloc’h is the furthest thing from a handsome hunk, which would have made the relationship impossibly banal. Actually, the lover is less good-looking than the husband, which makes for a more convincing meeting of souls amid all the transactions of the flesh. Nature itself in all its abundant exuberance is one of the major characters in the film, and an essential aphrodisiac for all the human passion unveiled.