Starring: Marina Hands, Jean-Louis Coulloc'h, Hippolyte Girardot
Director: Pascale Ferran
Category: III (French)
To understand Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley one should pay attention to the film's denouement, when the lady and her lover, gamekeeper Oliver Parkin, prepare to leave each other for the last time. Parkin is a subdued, physical character, making him the embodiment of the rugged masculinity a patriarchical, rustic society typically produces, but he finally finds his voice in that scene, articulating for the first time his feelings and how his mother had once commented on being worried about his 'feminine side'.
Much emphasis has been placed on the sexual liberation of the well-mannered but quietly frustrated aristocrat Constance Chatterley in D.H. Lawrence's tale (spawning the first film adaptation of Lady Chatterley's Lover, starring Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame). But by underlining Parkin's awakening as well as Constance's, Ferran returns empathy and introspection to Lawrence's work, offering audiences another take on a masterpiece that has in recent years been reduced in the public consciousness to being merely a bit of smut.
Not that there's not sex and skin aplenty in Ferran's film; there's a lot, in fact. But the director doesn't allow the love scenes to become the be all and end all of her film, and leavens the sex - the intensity of which is allowed to grow as the pair become ever closer - with more nuanced characterisation that explains their respective needs and their doubts.
Based on an adaptation of John Thomas and Lady Jane - Lawrence's novel of the Chatterley story that came out a year before the better-known and wordier Lady Chatterley's Lover - Ferran's piece is a much more cerebral and drawn-out (the film runs for 161 minutes) account of the affair between Constance (Marina Hands; above), an elegant noblewoman living an unfulfilled existence with her wheelchair-bound and impotent husband Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), and Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), the hushed man whose job is to oversee the woodlands of their vast estate.
Both Hands and Coulloc'h are remarkable in giving their roles the depth Ferran's adaptation calls for: the way Hands' Constance, trained to be a buttoned-up aristocrat, repeatedly breaks down in sheer frustration is almost perfect, and her way of showing her character's inner yearnings - such as when, from her car, she discreetly ogles coal miners taking a break from their back-breaking work in the pit - mixes desire with discretion.
The same goes for Coulloc'h, who navigates Parkin's slow transformation from the grungy to the intimate with care and deliberation. Both actors clearly played out their characters' paths towards attaining tenderness, the word that Lawrence had wanted to use as the title of his novel.
Adding to that is Ferran's deftness in evoking the social context of the story - the film begins with Clifford and his friends mourning the demise of their youthful ability, which hints at the withered humanity that Constance finds herself locked together with.
Lady Chatterley emerges as probably the definitive film adaptation of Lawrence's work and a benchmark for screen sex as more than just titillation.
Lady Chatterley opens today