Thursday, 1 October 2009

Lady Chatterley (2006)

Like most people here I know that D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel of Lady C and her lover was banned in Britain until 1960, following a lengthy obscenity trial -- more to do with the book's language than its sexual theme. Interestingly, for a very English story, most of the film versions have come from Europe starting with a venerable French one in 1955 and largely degenerating subsequently into a lurid sideshow. I have seen both the 1981 version starring Sylvia Kristel, the original Emmanuelle, directed by Just Jaeckin and the 1993 unbelievably tame and tony BBC TV version from normally outlandish director Ken Russell, starring Joely Richardson and Sean Bean, but I remember little about either of these. What I did not know previously was that Lawrence actually wrote three versions of the story and this French film, directed by the female director Pascale Ferran, is based on the second tale originally entitled "John Thomas and Lady Jane" with its theme of 'sexual healing'.

Ferran's film which won a Cesar for best film and best actress for its star, Marina Hands, along with several more gongs is a beautifully filmed love story, rather than the saga of raw sex that previous versions have emphasised. Hands plays the somewhat frail and listless wife of a supposedly charming landowner who is now paraplegic as a result of his war wounds. They lead a moneyed and comfortable life, but there is no passion or even real warmth between them. During one of her many excursions through the estate's woods and fields, she happens upon her husband's gamekeeper (Parkin, not Mellors in this version whom she has previously observed washing his manly torso) and she becomes a frequent visitor to his workshed. As their meetings increase, he makes the first clumsy sexual overture and their coupling on the rough floor of the shed is finished within a minute. Yet something has been awakened in her and she feels the need to continue this grappling until eventually she too achieves satisfaction.

Lest you think that this very long (168 minute) film is nothing but a series of sexual scenes -- and there are indeed a number of quite explicit ones -- let me quickly add that sex here is only the key for unlocking two very repressed souls from two very different backgrounds. Hands is magnificent as the previously inhibited wife who begins to glow with newfound health and worth. Parkin is played by a little-known actor called Jean-Louis Coullo'ch and I could not at first see his potential animal magnetism, as he seemed a little too old and not terribly attractive. However he does grow on one as the film progresses and the fact that he is not just some beautifully put together Hollywod hunk but a real-looking human being who manages to gradually reveal his soft side works well here. The scene where they run naked in the rain and he then garlands her body with wildflowers could have been corny, but instead is unbearably touching. Unlike previous versions, the film ends on a potential high note as the unlikely couple are forced to move apart, but whether or not they have any future relationship is left more than open

Although this is a very leisurely movie given its running time, it does not drag in any way and one appreciates how the lovelingly-filmed scenes of nature's grandeur reinforces the intimacy the protagonists have discovered. Apparently there is an even longer (220 minutes) French television version and I can not begin to imagine what could have be added to pad out the cinema version.

One last comment which has little to do with this lovely rendering of the tale. The obscenity trial hinged largely on the coy names that the lovers used for referring to their private parts. If one considers the title of the short story on which this version is based, 'John Thomas' is slightly old-fashioned British slang for the male member. I have no idea whether 'Lady Jane' has any similar female connation, but would mention that the character's name is Constance in all three versions of the story.
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