Lady Chatterley
Directed by Pascal Ferran
Co-written by Ferran and Roger Bohbot
with additional dialogue by Pierre Tridivic


The new film from Pascal Ferran, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Roger Bohbot (with additional dialogue by Pierre Trividic) is an adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's second pass at the story from his better-known Lady Chatterley's Lover. It's an interesting choice - to adapt the less well-know version - but Ferran hedges his bets by titling it Lady Chatterley, with a clear intention to tie it to its better-known successor.

In fact, anyone who has ever read beyond the "dirty bits" of the final version of the latter book - which was also Lawrence's final novel - knows that there is much more to the story than sex. The development of Constance Chatterley's character, her journey of self-discovery into a fuller knowledge of her own being through the relationships in which she involves herself, is a complex and ambivalent meditation on the course of life. The second version, titled John Thomas and Lady Jane in English, and Lady Chatterley et l'Homme du Bois,in French, is a more lyrical, gentler and more explicitly sensual version of the story that Lawrence originally published as The First Lady Chatterley.

The basic story elements remain the same. Constance Reid, a chaste and innocent young Englishwoman of good family, marries Sir Clifford Chatterly on the brink of the First World War. Sir Clifford goes off to war, and returns greviously wounded - in fact paralyzed from the waist down. Constance - an allegorical name if there ever was one - does her duty, becoming a full-time nurse for her injured spouse. They retreat to Chatterley's country estate and spend their time in relative isolation, minding the affairs of the house and the estate, receiving occasional visitors, reading and pursuing genteel pastimes like needlework.

In the course of standing in for her husband, Constance is sent to deliver some instructions to the estate's gamekeeper (here called "Parkin," as he was in the first two versions, rather than "Mellors" as he was in the third). Coming into contact with this rough, simple "man of the woods" (as the French title literally translates) awakens something unexpected in her.

The tension implicit in a marriage devoid of its physical component is a driving force here, as Lawrence - and Ferran - explores the role played in our lives by what the Greeks called "eros," a kind of "love" that was a force of nature, grounded in the physical world and the body, but with a spiritual component that clearly distinguished it from lust. Constance is ever so gradually drawn into a relationship with Parkin and through him, into a deepened relationship with the world.

Meanwhile Clifford does the best he can with his own life, appreciative of Constance's attention and fidelity, but deeply aware of the gulf between them that the lack of a physical relationship (and the promise of family that entails) has created. Despite the pain caused by his possessiveness and jealousy, he signals his sympathy for Constance's dilemma, wanting to be a caring and faithful wife, yet wanting a fulfilled life of her own, including physical love and children. He indicates his willingness that she should try to find at least some part of what she wants.

This strange, accidental mˇnage, and the way it impacts the three participants is the subject of the film's reflections. We see the connections develop, affect one another, and affect each of the individuals, but - as Lawrence does in the original - Ferran is content to leave the story open-ended, with no bold "resolution" of the conflicts implicit in such a situation. Like the author, the filmmaker is content to observe and reflect, wondering if we might learn some lessons from encountering people not as they pretend or wish to be, but as they really are.

To tell such a story in such a way was wildly bold when Lawrence attempted it in the 1920s and 30s. Such frankness about relationships, and especially about the part sexual love plays in them was almost unheard of - especially in England. In fact, the first published version of the story was much less explicit and less fully-honest. The third pass, by contrast, contained more social commentary, and more anger at the rigidity of the British class system and the social system in general - especially insofar as it robbed people, regardless of their level of privilege, of their connection with the natural world, and what Lawrence saw as an essential component of their authentic selves.

This second version, which Ferran chose to adapt, is full of the fascination with the natural world that is the strongest element in most of Lawrence's writing. It celebrates Constance's discovery of self and being through the experience of sexual love, but it also notes Parkin's realization of something deeper in his physical ardor for her, a spiritual connection awakened through the sexual one. And the background to it all - almost a character in the story in its own right - is the inexhaustible generosity and fecundity of nature, which guides the characters on as they seek a path and direction.

Although elements of social commentary are there, this version of the story is intensely focused individual and mutual self-discovery, which are after all the most basic enduring subjects. For, as Ferran's film has to remind us, although social customs and restrictions have changed drastically in the last century, each of us still has much to discover in trying to feel his or her way forward towards a balanced and grounded place in the natural world.

I think it must have been a recognition of the enduring relevance of this viewpoint that inspired Ferran to make this film. Certainly, in a time and culture that in spite of the apparent loosening of prohibitions is in many ways as awkward and uncomfortable with the power of eros as Lawrence's Edwardian era, it is a theme that has significant resonance.

What Ferran as director has made out of his film is a rich visual composition. In a film so concerned with the senses, with the direct and un-mediated appeal of the world to the psyche, it is appropriate that the camera should linger on images of color, movement and light that carry as much abstract delight as they do representational "meaning."

His use of camera placement, framing and movement often ties events to the larger world outside the frame. With his Cinematographer Julien Hirsch, his use of variable focus to compress and expand the visual field, or to create contradictory points of emphasis continually suggests that, as visually opulent as the film is, there is still more than meets the eye.

In telling the story Ferran gets strong support from his cast. Marina Hands plays Constance Chatterly as intellectually and emotionally little more than a schoolgirl, unsophisticated and naive, sheltered as much from the reality of her own inner nature as from the complications of the external world. She molds the story into a 'coming-of-age" tale that is all the more poignant in happening to a married woman in her late twenties

Jean-Louis Coullo'ch imbues Parkin with some of the feral charm of the young Brando in Streetcar - despite being at least a decade older - but without the anger and brutality . He manages to communicate a dogged and unself-conscious masculinity that can be deeply sensual and emotional without pretensions of a self-conscious "sensitivity." Most importantly for the film, in spite of Parkin's taciturn, reserved demeanor, Coullo'ch manages to convey the power of transformation the relationship holds for him as much as it does for Constance.

Hippolyte Girardot plays Sir Clifford Chatterly with a dignity and reserve that evokes sympathy, but not pity. His desperation to come to terms with the injury that has set him apart from the familiar world and his easy superiority in it, and to restore some sense of "normalcy," is both noble and pathetic. Girardot manages to convey the empathy Sir Clifford clearly feels for Constance's situation - in spite of the negative ramifications for his own position - and this added layer to the character makes him a participant in, rather than a mere observer of, their interconnected lives.

Bˇatrice Thiriet's original score walks a risky path of romantic lyricism, only rarely and briefly stumbling off into the distracting realm of overblown bluster. The costumes, locations and sets - I guess in discussing a French film I can get away with saying "mise-en-scene" - are very fine - completely in keeping with the story being told, creating an overall visual style that beautifully mirrors the changing emotional tones, from artificial formality, to respectful and wondering reserve, to sensuous abandon, that map the changes through which the characters must pass.

Lady Chatterly adheres closely to Lawrence's original themes. It presents, amplifies and explores them with the same sensitivity and sense of unfolding wonder that is the best part of the original book. Ferran has for the most part effectively translated a thoughtful, enigmatic and challenging work of literature into a movie that keeps all those qualities intact, and perhaps even penetrates more directly to the heart of the matter than the source material.

That's my take on it. What's yours?