Monday, September 03, 2007

Review - Lady Chatterley

Lady Chatterley is a name synonymous with sex and scandal. DH Lawrence's 1928 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover is infamous for the obscenity trial it sparked in Britain in 1960; the book's frank sexual descriptions and the liberal use of the word "fuck" clearly being deemed too much for the average British reader to take. As one high court judge asked during the trial: "is it a book you would be happy for your wife or servants to read?". Well, they did get to read it eventually, with the book winning its case and striking a blow for freedom of speech, but the whiff of notoriety has never quite left Lawrence's last work; and its two most well-known screen adaptations - Just Jaekin's 1981 film and Ken Russell's 1993 TV version - have revelled in its bawdy content, serving up buckets of sex for the discerning viewer.

Now, we have a third take on the
Lady Chatterley story, but this one is a little different. It is not from the third and most famous version of Lawrence's novel - the one which caused such controversy and inspired Jaekin and Russell - but it is in fact based on the second of the three books which the author wrote, John Thomas and Lady Jane. This book had more sex than the first draft, but not quite as much as the third, and the blunt language which was prevalent in Lady Chatterley's Lover was a little less evident in this middle entry as well. But if Pascal Ferrain's Lady Chatterley is anything to go by, any sense of passion and excitement was excised from this version of the tale as well.

The central thrust of the narrative remains the same. Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) lives on Wragby estate with her husband Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), who has come back from the Great War without the use of his legs. With her life being consumed by care for her husband, and with a complete lack of sexual gratification in their marriage (although it is hinted that this was the case even before Clifford's paralysis), Constance slips into a malaise, and a doctor recommends hiring help to relieve some of the burden on her weakened shoulders. After Mrs Bolton (Hélène Alexandridis) has been installed as Clifford's nurse, Constance starts taking walks around the grounds to revive her spirits, and during one of these constitutionals she sees the gamekeeper Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch). He is stripped to the waist, bathing behind his hut, and a startled Constance is seemingly so overcome with confusing feelings she bolts from the scene.

Clearly, the sight of Parkin's burly body unlocked something inside Lady Chatterley, and that evening she stands naked in front of the mirror, regarding her body as if she was looking at some stranger for the first time. She begins making excuses to visit Parkin on a daily basis, telling him that his hut is a lovely spot for her to rest, and asking him to find a spare key so she can stop by while he's away. At first he seems to consider her a nuisance, grudgingly affording her the respect demanded by her status while he tries to get on with his work; but there's something between the pair, and eventually they find themselves inside the hut, having sex on Parkin's dusty floor.

What's a little surprising about
Lady Chatterley is how long it takes for the central romance to kick in, and how long Ferrain can stretch things out afterwards. The film has been cut down from a four-hour French miniseries, but it still runs at an excessive 168 minutes, and the slow pace is a killer. Ferrain gives her film a kind of literary set-up, dividing scenes with chapter headings telling us how much time has elapsed and telling us where we are in the story, and occasionally a piece of narration from the book will be read by the director herself; but it's a bit of an awkward mix, and it makes the whole picture feel sluggish and episodic. So too does her habit of cutting away to shots of the natural world which surrounds her characters; it looks pretty - and the images of thawing snow, babbling brooks and blossoming flowers are occasionally effective in evoking Constance's awakening sexuality - but Ferrain is no Terrence Malick, and her inability to make this stylistic choice feel like an integral part of the film's structure ensures these cutaways become very tedious before the end.

In any case, every time Ferrain cuts away from Marina Hands she is doing her film a disservice. Hands is absolutely wonderful, detailing her character's thoughts and emotions through the most subtle yet engaging means, and Ferrain gives her plenty of room to deliver such a compelling display, but she doesn't extend such courtesies to the rest of her cast.
Lady Chatterley has the distinction of being the first version of the story directed by a woman, and Ferrain seems so enamoured by her leading lady she leaves the male members of the cast with little to work with. The casting of Parkin is curious, with Coullo'ch being quite unlike the hunky actors who have played this role previously. He has a large, angular head with a heavy brow and a grumpy demeanour; but what really matters is his lack of a tangible personality, and the dearth of chemistry he shares with Hands. He's a dull and inexpressive actor, and when a discussion occurs late in the film about Parkin being "too sensitive", one wonders if we are thinking about the same character.

To be fair to Ferrain, there is beauty here.
Lady Chatterley is a classily made film across the board, and it's easy to get lost in the visual splendour of some of its lazily paced passages. Crucially, Ferrain is excellent when dealing with the film's sexual scenes, generating a real erotic charge in the couple's encounters despite refraining from showing anything overly explicit, but Lady Chatterley's handful of compelling moments are too thinly spread over its long running time. The climax, when it finally comes, is a muddy puddle of inconsequence, and while the glorious Marina Hands does her best to keep us hooked, she is lost in a film which is unworthy of her. Lady Chatterley should be passionate and dangerous, sexy and alive; but without any drama or tension to drive its narrative, this version of DH Lawrence's scandalous tale is a dispiritingly limp affair.