Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Naked Truth

Lady Chatterley (2007), the very French film version of D.H. Lawrence's very British tale of sexual awakening, is a good litmus test for viewers of soft-core art films: the languorous narrative buildup, the pregnant pauses, the physical frankness -- either you find this sort of thing enrapturing or a holy bore. For me, Philip Kaufman set the standard with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and here director Pascale Ferran comes very close to matching it.

While Lady Chatterley's story is well-known, Ferran (who also co-wrote the script) chose to adapt the second and less familiar of Lawrence's three versions. Constance (Marina Hands), the lonely wife of Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), a wealthy English nobleman who returns paralyzed from the First World War, begins an affair with Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch), a gamekeeper who works and lives on the vast estate. Clifford, who is pompous and privileged but not unfeeling, gives Constance implicit permission to acquire herself (and him) with an heir without knowing this potentially involves a member of the lower-class. As Constance and Parkin's encounters intensify, and sex turns to love, the lush splendor of the estate takes on the aura of a Paradise that you assume will be inevitably spoiled.

For me, one of the pleasures of the film (not having read any versions of Lawrence's novel, I can't say how faithful it is to the source) is the surprises that develop out of the characters' motives. Clifford, who loves his wife, experiences a rekindling of that affection and gradually overcomes his infirmity to retake to the outdoors. (There's a grimly funny sequence where his motor-powered wheelchair gets stuck on an incline, and he refuses help from Parkin to scale it.) A long vacation by Constance wreaks havoc with Parkin's life (much of it occurs offscreen), but the reprisals don't come the way one might expect. In this adaptation, theirs isn't a doomed love so much as a transformative one, and the obstacles in the relationship come out of their own personalities -- her physical and emotional neediness, his predilection for solitude and old-fashioned notions of "manliness" -- and not just the strictures of their society.

Sexual passion, for all its challenges, is depicted as a positive thing in Lady Chatterley. And if Ferran stacks the deck somewhat by casting Gallic actors (the language is also French), the movie works largely due to the fact that those same performers aren't pretty the way Unbearable Lightness's Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche, for all their talent, are. Back in their heydey, virile-male filmmakers like John Derek or Roger Vadim would have gone even further and populated the movie with models, but Ferran's accomplishment is in enabling us to see that Hands and Coullou'ch, while certainly possessing attractive qualities, are virtued by their very ordinariness. The uninhibited way Coullou'ch reveals his pot belly (and more) is every bit as funny as Hands's rapturous regard for it. Ferran is alive to the mysteries of attraction, understands that you never know what will turn people on.

Lady Chatterley is a long movie -- almost three-hours -- yet watching it on DVD, I was able to absorb its quietude in segments over a few days. That the spell restored itself each time is, I think, a testament to its achievement, ending in a deeply moving final scene, a long conversation between the two lovers that is as emotionally naked as their prior encounters were physically, and veers from hope to doubt and back again, climaxing, like Joyce's Ulysses, in a simple yet earth-shaking "Yes."

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