by Michael Joshua Rowin

Lady Chatterley
Dir. Pascale Ferran, France, Kino Films

The seas of literary adaptation are wrought with peril, but there’s something particularly resistant to cinematic translation in the work of D.H. Lawrence. A novel like The Rainbow doesn’t seem possible to successfully convert into visual terms—its intensity of emotion and psychological insight is wholly dependent on verbal precision; it’s a monument of language built according to its characters’ awareness of body, mind, and soul, an inner monologue of their changing relationship to the entire universe as they grow from furious malcontents to enlightened iconoclasts. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence’s most infamous novel and the source of scandal and censorship upon its publication in 1928 for its frank depiction of adulterous sex and unabashed swearing, presents a contrary set of problems. Unlike The Rainbow or Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley is superficially ripe for the screen: its prose is digestible, its story arc simple, and its action extremely camera-friendly even as it takes up its predecessors’ themes. Yet the book’s notorious erotic journey is, in ways, a distraction. There’s a lot more going on in Lady Chatterley beyond some cathartic banging that a movie cut expressly to that tune might overlook.

French director Pascale Ferran’s adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, winner of five César awards, including best film and adapted screenplay, is notable for unconventionally following the second version of the book, the one titled John Thomas and Lady Jane. This version places a stronger accent on Lawrence’s obsession with the restorative power of nature and makes its lovers less wounded philosophers and more liberated adventurers. Previous adaptations, including Ken Russell’s 1993 television movie, have typically followed the “final” and more widely read third version—because of the talent behind such projects, the cinematic history of Lady Chatterley is sadly (but also hilariously) littered with softcore titillation up to and including the extremely tangentially related Lady Chatterley’s Passions 2: Julie’s Secret (hot!). Like many readers, Ferran prefers John Thomas and Lady Jane, but her choice for adaptation is also a conscious decision to combat the stigma of pornography that has stuck to Lawrence’s third version ever since it was initially greeted by critics and the public with righteous scorn and lurid interest. Ferran takes advantage of Lawrence’s different emphasis in the second version to fashion a more tender (the author’s initial title for the novel was Tenderness) sensorial experience of forbidden love and sex set amidst the romantic bloom of spring, a “tasteful” Lady Chatterley minus the cusswords, the brooding, or the apocalyptic stench of war’s aftermath. John Thomas and Lady Jane in Ferran’s hands thus becomes even more fable-like than Lawrence’s tale, which distilled to its essence is a rather simplistic story: that of a woman, Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands), who around the time after the Great War rebels against the “life of the mind” prudishness of her moral environment and marital impasse by having an affair with Parkin, a rugged, working class gamekeeper.

Though the longest of the three versions, John Thomas and Lady Jane is still an average-length novel, which makes it curious that Ferran’s film (adapted by herself and Roger Bohbot, Arnaud Desplechin’s cowriter on Kings and Queen) should be 168 minutes long (220 in the French TV version) and yet still not find room to develop the situations and themes that make Lady Chatterley’s Lover more than the bodice-ripper it’s been so often pegged as. Even the flower-power second version features a section in the ninth chapter that delineates the relationship between the English aristocrats who own the coal mines and the poor workers who line their pockets, and how that relationship has been altered by industrialization:

“Mining had become less and less a personal affair, it was part of scientific industrialism, with the artisan hordes on the one hand, the exploiting capitalists on the other. . . . He winced away from the colliers. They did not salute him. They stared at him a moment, and turned away, muttering to one another. And he had to walk by, wincing, pretending not to see them. Yet he saw them well enough, and that little smile of derisive resentment on their faces. They resented him. They resented all the upper classes. It was rather a subtle, derisive resentment than dislike. No, no, they didn’t dislike him. But they resented him, resented his ‘superiority.’ That was it. . . . Connie knew it all, and accepted it far more inevitably than Clifford did. The world of the Cliffords and the Winters was doomed. Another, more awful world was coming. Yet perhaps the more awful world had more life, more weird passion to it; and life no matter how weird the form, is the only eternal conqueror.”

No weird passion exists in Ferran’s Lady Chatterley. Rather, the film filters any passion through the soft romance, and not the scary outside world, of Lawrence’s novel. Certainly, Ferran doesn’t do much to allow the viewer to understand or imagine the conditions in which a weird passion could foment in a doomed milieu. Yes, the film makes mention of the First World War, the epochal bloodletting that haunts the entire book, in the opening scene introducing Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), Lady Chatterley’s husband, who’d been paralyzed in the war and can no longer have children. It represents the community colliers in one terrific, nearly wordless scene that has her Ladyship watching them as if they were mysterious creatures viewed from a telescope. It even pays lip service to class tensions in an abridgement of an important dialogue between Connie and her husband on a stroll through their estate. But otherwise there’s no sense that these characters exist among “the ruins” of the cataclysmic “tragic age” Lawrence paints in the book’s very first sentences. So when Lady Chatterley winds up in the arms of the quiet, Brandoesque Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h) nothing is at stake.

Ferran takes great pains to film nature in all its verdant glory, yet it’s a mere accounting; in a recent New York Times article she cites Apichatpong Weerasethakul as an influence in depicting the eroticism of nature, but despite some poignant night photography her dry, static shots of flowers, copses, and trees only minimally fulfill the “awakening of the senses” requirement and never achieve the hypnotic spell of the Thai filmmaker’s transcendence. As for the sex scenes, Ferran directs them with a serviceable integrity, both to Lawrence’s material and to the rhythms and motions of her actors, and she rightly refuses to shy away from the unapologetic human aspects of the realm of flesh, such as Lady Chatterley’s bewildered, unorgasmic shock as she finds herself beneath the strange man, as well as a direct look at an erect penis. But Ferran’s slavish fidelity to the sillier elements of Lawrence’s novel is disastrous. The running naked in the rain, the flowers in pubic hair—they’re Lawrence’s utopian ideal of sex as interpreted via the safe iconography of the sexual revolution Lawrence portended but looked far past. The fact that Hands and Coulloc’h play their scenes without the searching, improvising-on-the-spot nervousness of real sexual contact suggests that in Lady Chatterley sex isn’t a holy ritual of renewed blood, as it is for Lawrence, but a brief forestial vacation.

Ironically, Coulloc’h’s likeness to Brando links Lady Chatterley to another erotic artistic scandal of the twentieth century. This year marks the 35th anniversary of Last Tango in Paris, still an imperfect but nonetheless enduringly tortured vision of a sexually experimental affair that casts its enormous shadow over an enterprise like Lady Chatterley—the former exposes the latter as positively tame, to use Lawrence’s deriding adjective. Like Lawrence’s novel, Bertolucci’s film has avoided aging not by having reached for the universal but by having embraced the tenor of its time, by matching the ferocity of its characters’ hunger with the despair of their respective epochs. Theirs are characters finding refuge in sex and creating a secret world from it, channeling into illicit conspiracy the frustrated anguish of being forced to compromise their lust by a society that is, at bottom, insane with repression. Ferran assumes Lady Chatterley’s romantic coupling can be extracted from surrounding social and political factors so easily that she can get by on the book’s mythic tendency, the least subversive part of its program. She also assumes that because Lawrence came close to but just missed out on expressing the dirty battles of eroticism that she can excise it altogether, focusing on the “healthiness” of sexual freedom while ignoring its grime and absurdity, this in an age more knowing but also more confused about sex than ever. This brings us to her overarching decision to model Lady Chatterley on the second version. To fault a director for a move that might have yielded better results if not for dozens of other creative factors at first seems unfair. Yet in her recent introduction to Lady Chatterley’s Lover Doris Lessing writes an instructive comment to the importance of that move: “We may argue that the third version is not the best, and many people have, but it is the one Lawrence took his stand on.” If only Ferran had used Lady Chatterley to take a stand for anything at all beyond the insulated contentment of her lovers.