Lady Chatterley

ladychatterley.jpg
Kino International
Pascale Ferran/Belgium-France-United Kingdom 2006

Basing her film on an early and lesser-known version of the Lady Chatterley story called John Thomas and Lady Jane, Pascale Ferran makes an admirable attempt to transpose novel to film and reflect D.H. Lawrence’s controversial views on sex, class and power. This beautifully photographed interpretation of his most infamous novel is, however, disappointing. Whilst subtly understated acting and a lyrical piano soundtrack support a detailed mise-en-scène, the reason for failure lies with Lawrence’s writing style, too literary for easy transposition to a visual medium.

The events are straightforward: Sir. Clifford Chatterley (Hippolyte Girardot) has been paralyzed while fighting in WWI. His beautiful young wife Constance (Marina Hands) tends him at the family seat, Wragby Hall, until a live-in nurse, Mrs. Bolton, (Hélène Alexandridis) is appointed. Constance is freed to begin a love affair with the estate’s gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h), but problems arising from the gamekeeper’s former marriage, which surface when Connie is away on holiday, threaten to separate the lovers.

Lawrence struggled to become published in the early 20th century, handicapped by his class and regional origins and because he wrote novels and short stories about working-class men and women, with an emphasis on sex. Considered vulgar by a London literary coterie still coming to terms with industrialization and an educated proletariat, the frank portrayals of sex were particularly controversial and led to heavy censorship and banning. Lawrence’s themes, as well as his style, have more in common with the great European writers Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Federico Garci­a Lorca than the popular English novelists of his time such as Anthony Trollope and E.M. Forster.

In theory, the novels seem eminently filmable, with characters in settings that merge with their psyches as an expression of personality. Lawrence’s distinctive authorial voice and almost biblical cadences are missing from this film, but his the use of symbolism, reflected in novel titles like The Rainbow (1915), his short story “Odor of Chrysanthemums” (1911) or the poem “Snake” (1923) is retained , as is the characterization of the working-class gamekeeper. Lawrence presented Nottinghamshire working people in a mold that was different from Dickensian grotesques or Thomas Hardy’s comic chorus of rustics. The use of dialect also upset the Bloomsbury set, and is understandably absent from this French-language version. In rendering Parkin inarticulate, however, the film makes him seem slow-witted. It is a shame that we have to wait until the end of the film for evidence of the striking eloquence in the book, merely represented by, “You have the gift of life” as he describes his feelings for Connie. The same idea expressed as a response to natural beauty in the landscape slows the film considerably.

The French setting raises language problems of another kind. While it’s acceptable for the French countryside to stand in for a Nottinghamshire estate, it’s disorientating when the characters’ very English names are pronounced with a French accent, especially the much-mentioned Mrs. “Bolt on”.

Otherwise, mise-en-scène is the film’s major strength, from the wind-up gramophone, vintage cars and costumes of Wragby Hall, like a more restrained Gosford Park, to the woodland brooks and creatures. Connie’s yearning to be a bird is matched with the shot of a soaring kite, part of the film’s unrelenting mission to express ideas pictorially. Cloudy skies warn of impending trouble whilst an after-dinner anecdote of a soldier who continued charging even after his head was blown off lends context to the unfolding romance. The class divide is represented in scenes of lace-capped women cleaning silver, retainers on standby to haul Sir Clifford from his car to his wheelchair and a summons for Clifford to sort out strikes at the family’s mine. One scene in particular, where Clifford fails to drive his petrol-driven wheelchair up a slope without Parkin’s help, reflects Lawrence’s views on an effete but dictatorial upper class.

Other scenes, too, recall important themes in Lawrence’s novels. Constance’s initial sight of Parkin washing himself echoes Lawrence’s typical expression of male physicality, first described in his most autobiographical novel Sons and Lovers (1913). The first daffodils near Parkin’s shack, the pheasant chicks which stir Constance’s maternal feelings, the gossiping villagers in the shop and the miners she glimpses through car windows attempt an inclusive vision of Lawrentian themes. Connie’s incipient socialism, squashed as Clifford reminds her that she too depends on servants, is a theme continued when Parkin voices his reluctance to accept her offer to set him up with a farm of his own; the male female relationship then would resemble too closely the master-servant one of which she seems unaware.

The absence of the authorial voice as narrator is not so successfully handled: The director plumps for a series of black-background stills with white print for commentary, which although reminiscent of the era’s silent films are not well integrated into the general realism. The limitations of the method are apparent when the voice and image of Mrs. Bolton take over as narrator, reading the letters she sends to Connie on holiday in the South of France so that she, and we, are kept abreast of events. Still, though Lady Chatterley may join the likes of Ken Russell’s Women in Love as a creditable failure, it is as nearly successful an attempt at filming Lawrence as we are likely to get.

© 2007 Sheila Cornelius. All rights reserved.

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