Lost in the Woods
In brief prefatory remarks through a translator, Pascale Ferran indicated that three months abroad accompanying her 2006 Lady Chatterley was enough and that she was happy to be returning to France following a last later after-screening discussion.
One of some thirty features and shorts making up the Museum of Modern Art’s “Age of Pierre Chevalier” tribute to that fiction producer at Franco-German television’s ARTE, this particular Modern Mondays series film was “an adult far cry from many soft-core and middlebrow versions that have preceded it.” Afterwards, the directress affirmed that, as represented in current cinema, “sexuality has little to do with our lives (at least mine)” and that her initial concern -- one usually far down on the list of questions put to her--was the lovemaking as “absolutely essential to [D.H. Lawrence’s] sex as an instinct of vital force and the body as a unified interaction of thought and feeling, love and sexuality.”
So from the very first frames, she underlined, we have “desire allied to thought, to me,” in the unheard-of device of a woman, Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands), musing silently about her self and her body. Nearly three hours later, many of the audience’s questions, and of Ferran’s lengthy responses, centered on this dual life force, as opposed to “pornography, where you only have bodies, [or to] Hiroshima [Mon Amour], where sexuality is somewhat linked to an impulse for death.” Many more concerned variations among the different versions of the long-banned 1928 novel, and why John Thomas and Lady Jane, this relatively unknown second of three, was chosen to be co-scripted by the director for the big screen and its 220-minute two-part television sister now slated for DVD release, both titled Lady Chatterley et l’homme des bois.
A perceptive bilingual foreign student observed to me long ago that it is overwhelmingly males who find Lawrence nicely sensitive to female feelings. Ferran apparently does, too, and the interchanges about which novel revision emphasizes what, were, in both senses, academic and not germane to Lady Chatterley as a film which stands or falls, after all, on cinematic merits or flaws.
Shot in chronological order February to mid-July in French countryside and hamlets standing in for the industrial Sheffield area, the visually sensual film is faithful to the English author’s over-insistent unselfconscious freedom in flora and fauna, and many viewers are attracted to this portrayal of natural beauty. Film being “ideally a sensory experience,” the celebration of trees and gurgling brooks, flowers and meadows, peacocks and hens and dogs is integral background to the silences and to the simple phrases of Constance and the movement towards rough revelatory expression by gamekeeper Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h).
Anaemic from emotional and sexual understimulation, she is the self-effacing wife of Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), crippled in the war and impotent. Early in the book, he hints at health-based permission for her to take a lover, an act of which he believes her incapable, but it is only much later on-screen that, with many a sideways glance of suspicion, this male symbol of sterile-industrial-man lays down his conditions of lineage for any child she may conceive, an idea awkwardly introduced in a visit to breast-feeding former housemaid Mrs. Emma Flint (Ninon Brétécher).
Taciturn by inclination and (lack of) education, man-of-earth Parkin prefers solitude, his silence concealing a sensitive soul wounded by class conventions and a short failed marriage to Bertha (Marina-Aymée Philippe) and only at the very end permitting him to articulate love and devotion. “Given back her body” through him, Ferran pointed out, “Constance in turn allows him to reach a point where he can reveal himself through speaking.” Alas, “aiming that the viewer could be inside Constance’s head as much as possible,” the result makes the lady come across as a simple-minded girl instead of an achingly vulnerable woman of possibilities. Embedded in longueurs before and after, her innocent enjoyment of excursions to his hut turns not surprisingly into surprisingly tame pleasures in his makeshift bed. The encounters are quick and clothed, with only one late all-nighter where each insists the other disrobe and one naked-in-boots frolic of their realistic non-Hollywood bodies under fertilizing rain.
Aristocrat Clifford is a cold, difficult character, alternating between self-pity and sympathetic moments that are pricked, as when his pride at moving with crutches becomes helpless dependence on male servants to ascend the stone stairs his wife lightly graced in opening seconds. His capitalist views are “cruel,” yet there is truth to his assessment of war and of his wife’s pampered, privileged existence. Intended to indicate inexperience, her “some good in Socialism” and simpering from a limousine at blackened mineworkers show how spoiled-child unaware she is of their reality.
Mrs. Bolton (Hélène Alexandridis) is another hard to pin down. Widowed young in a mine explosion, the forty-one-year-old thinks of her dead husband but comes to bathe, shave, care and act as secretary for Clifford, thus serving to relieve the mistress for other, pleasant activities. More sinister in the book, where she mothers the willing man and worms her way to power, she ambiguously verges on sympathetic here. But it is her perhaps malicious letter to a Constance on Riviera vacation that, with facile lack of dramatization, voiceovers important events back at Wragby and triggers a resolution supposedly “a Yes to life [and] the freedom to build” while also “open-ended, not resolved.”
“Specialist in the erotic” Lawrence’s tale of transformation of two lovers, of a woman “living at the ultimate of herself, of her own being as she has come to discover it,” no longer seems sensational. Occasional titters during the film were likely sympathetic, but, still, there is room to suspect that they were elicited by the drawn-out silliness.
(Released by Kino International and rated “R” for sexuality and graphic nudity.)