Many readers are unaware that D.H. Lawrence penned three versions of the novel that is forever associated with censorship trials and graphic depictions of sex, sex and sex. The second of these, John Thomas and Lady Jane, is perhaps the most tender of the three (it is said he intended to title it Tenderness), and is the basis for Pascale Ferran’s epic, and weirdly mistitled, Lady Chatterley. The plot is substantially the same here as its more famous cousin – a rich woman’s sexual dalliances with a muscular servant behind the back of her paralyzed and impotent husband – and it shares the same interest in class conflict, sexual repression, and the supplanting of the natural by the civilized.
Ferran’s film is beautifully shot and features uniformly fine performances. Jean-Louis Coulloc’h plays Parkin, the gameskeeper and object of desire, with such gruff and blazing intensity that his physical unattractiveness – he is broad, hulking, and rough – is utterly overcome. His body is, we begin to suspect, a metaphor for primitive earthiness, for the rough-handed earth-salt that he represents to his soft and cultivated admirer.
As Lady Jane, Marina Hands is an inspired bit of casting. Utterly in command of her nimble body, her odd features and slightly uncomfortable bearing melt away as the film progresses. The first moments when we see her express genuine emotion (be it in a smile, a laugh, or through tears) she becomes suddenly, shockingly, beautiful. In a film that is in every way about the stirring of the dormant libido, Hands plays her character as the opening of a flower. Remarkable stuff.
In a film that is all about transgression, all about the repressed wealthy woman who experiences a sensual awakening through her adventure into the natural world embodied by the gameskeeper, class is unavoidable at issue. Lady Jane’s wheelchair-bound husband is the owner of the local mine, and we hear him speak disdainfully of his workers as if they were slaves. Lady Jane pushes him to show more respect, but he reminds her that it has always been this way.
The poor are ignorant and needy, and they look to the wealthy for leadership, for lessons in civility, and for a shining example to which to aspire. But, Jane betrays this order by looking to the earth, to Parkin, and begins to shed some of these exemplary trappings. Her sexual awakening is then a metaphor for her reconnection with nature, and her escape from the violence of class stratification. In a way, it is meant to represent her overcoming of the evil of her class privilege. Which, let’s face it, is a bit of a lame and uncomfortable metaphor. I mean, aren’t we relying on a host of highly gendered stereotypes here about man’s inner primitive and woman’s inner nurturer? What if the film were about a wealthy man, Lord Chatterley, and the sexual awakening he experiences after screwing around with the laundry girl? Would it be hard to accept that as a metaphor for his connecting with the underclass? Maybe this is why Lawrence tried writing this story three times: it kept ringing just a bit hollow?
Ferran has produced an excellent film (or, rather, two films, since the movie is divided between Parts I and II, each about 105 minutes in length) and one that serves the source material well, indeed. It’s difficult to imagine a more successful adaptation of this stuff, or a more loving tribute to the thematic approaches of its author. The only slight quibble I’ll offer is with the oddly unappealing sex scenes (of which there are, like, 11, so this isn’t a complaint that there ain’t enough). Many take place very nearly fully clothed. At least one of them seems physically impossible.
For a movie that revolves around sexual awakening, it takes a long time to get to the really physical material. This is by design, but it will leave some viewers wondering why there are so many costumes at what they thought was going to be a naked party. Never fear, however: there is an extremely lengthy completely-naked-and-running-around-in-the-rain stretch about halfway through Part II that is not only intensely beautiful to watch, but also gratifyingly erotic. This triumphant moment is followed by a tender scene in which the two lovers decorate each others’ naked bodies with wildflowers. This clever gesture underlines her newfound embrace of the natural world while demonstrating the sheer sensual joy these two have discovered. This exchange alone is worth the price of attention for the two-plus hours which precede it.