How can the French make an English novel less sexy?
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Pascale Ferran
Cast: Marina Hands, Jean-Louis Coullo'ch, Hippolyte Girardot
Ah, highbrow sex. Oh, arthouse erotica. Where would we be without you? From 1967’s I Am Curious (Yellow) to 1972’s Last Tango in Paris to 1974’s The Night Porter to 1976’s In The Realm of the Senses to 1986’s Betty Blue to 1994’s Exotica to 1996’s Crash to 2003’s The Dreamers to 2006’s Shortbus (with countless stops in between), foreign filmmakers have proven that private parts can be pretentious too.
Originally shot for French television (cable, I’m guessing), the European import Lady Chatterley is based on an early (and, by the evidence at hand, less interesting) draft of D.H. Lawrence’s infamous naughty novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This is the fourth or fifth or sixth filmic iteration of the tale. (It’s hard to count with softcore spinoffs like Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterley and Lady Chatterley’s Passions 2: Julie’s Secret mucking up the tally). Since the film--by little-known Frenchy femme Pascale Ferran--turns “Lady Chatterley” from an adjective to a noun in the title, you’re probably assuming this is a somewhat more feminist take on the classic bedtime story. Is it? Well, as the French say: Sorta.
Lawrence’s original 1928 novel was feminist enough to begin with, asserting that a life of the mind may not be enough for modern women. Lady Chatterley’s Lover proved there’s something to be said for being alive in the physical as well as intellectual sense. ... That and the fact that Brits have a long tradition of screwing the help.
In any case, Lawrence’s basic story (and it is mighty basic) remains intact. Lady Chatterley (the partially attractive Marina Hands from The Barbarian Invasions) is living comfortably, if somewhat unsatisfactorily, in the sprawling country manor home of her husband, Lord Chatterley (Hippolyte Girardot, Manon of the Spring). One day, whilst picking posies in the forest, she stumbles across the shack of the estate’s gamekeeper, a manly hunk o’ meat named Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo’ch, who looks like the love child of Oliver Stone and Craig T. Nelson). Naturally, she starts sleeping with him.
As in previous iterations, Lady Chatterley’s hubby is impotent, confined to a wheelchair thanks to a German bullet in Word War I. Here, however, Parkin (changed, for some reason, from “Oliver Mellors”) is much less brutish and earthy. (He doesn’t even utter the four-letter word that got Lawrence banned around the world.) With less overt class distinction on display, the affair becomes considerably less taboo. What, then, is the point?
In Ferran’s film, everyone on the rather cloistered Chatterley estate speaks French. Turnabout is fair play--every historical figure in our movies speaks English. Still, it’s a little odd seeing such a British tale told in French. The English seem so much more uptight about sex. Honestly, it’s hard to sound frigid in French.
In any language, dialogue comes at a minimum here. Conversation at the Chatterley household is littered with so many pregnant pauses you’d think there was still a wartime ration on words. By way of compensation, Ferran takes a cue from American malingerer Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven), giving viewers plenty of long, lingering, lovely shots of the English countryside: flowers! squirrels! meadows! streams! moss! on rocks! more flowers! oh, look, a lizard! (By gosh, you’re right, Pascale, nature is pretty.) At a sleepy 168 minutes (cut down from an inconceivable 220), Lady Chatterley does tend to drift on a skosh. Hell, it’s 45 minutes before anybody gets their garters off.
Ultimately, it’s hard to label this erotica. What should be liberating and passionate is mostly drab and inert. This film’s idea of “earthy” is to have Lady Chatterley and her no-longer titular sex partner prance around naked in the rain and adorn each other’s naughty bits with flowers. Really?
The film is pretty, it’s beautifully lit and it won five César Awards including Best Picture. (Clearly the French dug it.) If you like your sex in soft focus and intercut with lots of metaphorical shots of Mother Nature, then Lady Chatterley is for you. But if you’re looking for something a bit more ... stimulating, this non-revisionist revision is--to steal a handy phrase from the French--comme ci, comme ça.
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