D.H. Lawrences 1920s erotic novel Lady Chatterleys Lover was banned in this country until the famous trial in 1960 endorsed its publication. Even now it is largely associated with smutty and ridiculous sex scenes but flawed though the book is Lawrence wrote a powerfully passionate account of differing male and female sexualities, while also dissecting class divisions and condemning dehumanized modern society.
There have been a number of dire film versions including the 80s film starring Sylvia Emmanuelle Krystel, and Ken Russells 90s TV dramatization with Joely Richardson and Sean Bean. Now, however, French film-maker Pascale Ferran has finally got it right with a beautifully sensual treatment which won five Csars (including best film).
At almost three hours long (though there is an even longer, two-part version for TV), Lady Chatterley is a slow-paced movie with some longueurs, but as well as looking gorgeous it perfectly captures the evolving central relationship. The screenplay by Pascale Ferran, Roger Bohbot and Pierre Trividic is based on the second version of Lawrences novel, called John Thomas and Lady Jane, which is more romantic and less polemical than the final third version, though the basic scenario is the same.
After Lady Constances older husband, the wealthy baronet and mine-owner Sir Clifford Chatterley, has received a disabling wound from fighting in the First World War, their previously lukewarm marriage loses all passion. In the wooded country estate in which they live, the lonely Constance embarks on a wild affair with the strapping gamekeeper Oliver Parkin, an isolated taciturn character who has retreated from human society to live close to the natural world. But can the total liberation they find in their love survive the pressures of social convention?
Ferrans movie is most successful at showing how the couples initial awkward encounters, with mutual physical attraction in friction with contrasting class background, develop into an absolute emotional trust where they create their own private world, however fragile. The slow awakening of love and renewed awareness of the wonder of life is portrayed with great tenderness and sensuality. The six sex scenes are genuinely intimate without being titillating.
Julien Hirschs stunning cinematography plays a major part in conveying how the lovers all-embracing relationship is bound up with the natural setting, as spring-like budding desire turns into the consummation of summer, and so on. Sex is just part of a continuum of the sensual discovery of two people getting back in touch with their own instincts.
Constances first encounter with Parkin is memorably shot, as unseen she stumbles across him washing his shirtless torso, while the scenes where they decorate each others bodies with flowers and run outside naked into the rain and mud manage to avoid being laughable and instead evoke a pure physicality. The episode where the disdainful but helpless Chatterley has to reluctantly accept the support of Parkin and Constance in pushing his electric wheelchair uphill is brilliantly done, as the conventional master/mistress/servant relations are all challenged.
The young Anglo-French actress Marina Hands surely a star in the making – gives a captivatingly natural performance as Constance, showing a rare talent for transparent emotion: we see her blossoming like a delicate flower in the sun, experiencing sensations for the first time in the full.
As Parkin, with his stocky frame and thinning hair, Jean-Louis Coulloch is not the archetypal hunk of a gamekeeper, but he not only exudes a convincing earthiness but also suggests a deep-seated melancholy.
Hippolyte Girardot is a not unsympathetic Chatterley, unable to touch his wifes heart but bravely coping with his disability which seems to symbolize a lack of the vital life-force which Lawrence celebrates.
All in all, a magnificent adaptation of a difficult and rewarding book.