'Lady Chatterley's Lover' Fails to Rise Above Mere Bodice-Ripping

Like all adaptations of this classic work of erotic literature, this film misses the mark in capturing any of the poignancy of the novel's fluid and lyrical prose.

Lady Chatterley's Lover

Director: Just Jaeckin
Cast: Sylvia Kristel, Nicholas Clay
Distributor: Olive Films
US DVD Release: 2015-02-17

One of the most significant works of erotic literature written, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover has been noted for its frank delineation of carnal desires as well as its measured portrayals of class distinction. The novel has been filmed a number of times, but these adaptations have often missed the mark in capturing any of the poignancy in Lawrence’s fluid and lyrical prose. While there have been many successful adaptations of Lawence’s other works, there’s a seemingly inherent developmental glitch in Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s structure that proves for a tricky and flawed interpretation on film. It may be the brazen moments of sex with their depictions revved up to near high camp, or possibly the socio-economic themes that never gel well with the erotica.

Even by Lawrence’s own admission, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has been a mess of a story that doesn’t capture what the author has concisely observed about sex and gender in his far more successful works like Women in Love and Sons and Lovers. But Lady Chatterley’s Lover cannot be denied for its bravery; few writers in Lawrence’s time found an equally poetic and forthright way of discussing the relevance of sex in relationships and his once-banned novel of illicit romance is still a work of consequence that rises above a mere bodice-ripper.

Just Jaeckin’s 1981 adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover stars the late Sylvia Kristel, the sometimes-softcore actress who had teamed up with Jaeckin a few years prior for the arthouse erotic film, Emmanuelle (1974). Emmanuelle starred Kristel as the titular character, which cemented her reputation as one of the most desirable onscreen presences of the '70s. With that came the stinging backlash, where the Dutch actress often found herself the target of much critical derision, ridiculed for her acting abilities and only noted for the copious amounts of flesh she bared on camera. Not all of the criticism was justified, however; when presented with quality material and given a chance to actually embody a fully developed character, Kristel managed some surprising and affecting turns. Seeing as how Lady Chatterley’s Lover was already a work of steaming hothouse erotica which demanded displays of full-frontal nudity, it’s not surprising that Kristel was asked to fill the role of Constance.

Constance (Lady Chatterley) is a young woman who is married to a wealthy man named Clifford. Clifford is an exasperating gentleman who spends half his time indulging in the opulence of his lavish lifestyle and the other half looking down his nose at those who either work for him or exist far outside the world of his sheltered estate. Constance is very much in love with Clifford, but when a war injury renders him paralyzed from the waist down and therefore unable to satisfy his wife’s carnal needs, he encourages Constance to take a lover to alleviate her frustrations.

Because Clifford is naive and doesn’t initially seem too interested in just exactly whom his wife would like for a new bedfellow, Constance decides upon the gamekeeper named Oliver (Nicholas Clay) who lives in the outhouse in the wooded lot behind the estate. Spying a buff, naked and assumedly virile young man one day as he’s taking a shower in the open wilderness of his farmstead, Constance is immediately flooded with erotic yearnings and her intense and growing attraction for Oliver threatens to destroy her relationship with Clifford.

In any form, the story is pure ham. Lawrence’s book has been filmed numerous times, and no version has ever really managed to shake off the filmy residue of a costumed-drama soap opera. There is indeed a certain charismatic energy between Kristel and Clay, but their liaisons appear more like the juvenile trysts of teenagers trying not to get caught under the bleachers during school hours. And while the sexual exchanges between the two are mildly steamy, they are also affected and pulled straight out of a Harlequin romance; in what might be one of the most cloying and silliest erotic scenes ever filmed, Kristel is spread nude atop a chamber bed while she is adorned with weeds and flowers by a fawning Clay. It isn’t especially sexy but rather dreadful; the scene brims with softcore pretensions.

Like many of the films she’s appeared in, Kristel is dubbed yet again. It’s a wonder why anyone ever bothered to substitute her voice, however; Kristel spoke perfect English and there really wasn’t anything off-putting about her natural voice. Here, she sounds strangely morphined. The voiceover actress of whom Kristel’s voice has been dubbed with speaks in a husky and somewhat stilted fashion. It makes Kristel’s movements onscreen appear slightly gauche, as her speech and body movements are not naturally coordinated.

Where the film does manage to impress is the production design; Lady Chatterley’s Lover has the expected grand opulence of English bourgeoisie existence and Jaeckin, who perfected a similar style in visual extravagance with Emmanuelle, gives this film a muted richness of colour and sheen. There’s a storybook sense of romance hovering in the atmosphere here and this is down to the glossy, decadent displays of home finery and elegant decor that furnish the estate. Though it’s never much of a distraction from some of the tedious going-ons within the story, the film’s visual aesthetic at least gives viewers something nice to look at in the meanwhile.

Olive Films’ Blu-ray release presents an attractive transfer which shows off the earthy and muted hues of the film rather nicely. The picture is a little soft, but this was intentional as Lady Chatterley’s Lover was typical of most soft-focus erotica back in the day. Many scenes have that gauzy look, as though the characters are walking their way through the haze of a dream.

Unfortunately, there are no extras available, not even a trailer. Perhaps that is fair enough; since the film never generated much interest when it was released more than 30 years back and seems to slip through the cracks whenever adaptations of Lawrence’s works are discussed, it’s a good bet most aren’t lamenting the omission of any supplements.

Not surprisingly, the film wasn’t a success by any means upon its 1981 release; in a market that had just discovered the slasher film and the teen sex-comedy, a heavy-breathing period romance with a slight socio-economic bent wasn’t going to stand a chance. Kristel, who had high hopes for the project, reportedly called it the last important work in her repertoire that she had committed to. It does remain an interesting relic from a long-gone era, but it’s still pretty nonessential regardless.

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