Produced by Kristina Larsen and Gilles Sandoz; directed by Pascale Ferran; written by Roger Bohbot, Pascale Ferran and Pierre Trividic, based on the novel John Thomas and Lady Jane by D. H. Lawrence; cinematography by Julien Hirsch; edited by Yann Dedet and Mathilde Muyard; production design by François-Renaud Labarthe; costume design by Marie-Claude Altot; original music by Béatrice Thiriet; starring Marina Hands, Jean-Louis Coullo’ch, Hyppolite Girardot, Hélène Alexandridis and Hélène Fillières. Color, 168 mins. French dialog with English subtitles. A Kino International release.
Why Lady Chatterley again, and why now? That would seem to be the question that any contemporary film version of this oft-adapted story of post-Victorian sexual discovery must implicitly answer, not only in its attitude toward the material but also in the very bones of its form. This is so for a few reasons, some more obvious than others. First, as I’ve alluded to, D. H. Lawrence novels have been adapted for the screen more than ten times, in versions ranging from Marc Allégret’s high-toned Danielle Darrieux vehicle of 1955 through the tony trash of Ken Russell’s 1993 miniseries, with several Euro-softcore renditions popping up in the years between. Second, the post-Freudian modernism of Lawrence, with its insistence on sexuality as a primal force capable of disrupting the strictures of human society, even if only temporarily, has been subject to thorough critique in the intervening years. Feminist and poststructuralist theory, in particular, has tended to find Lawrence wanting in the arena of gender analysis, while all but the most generous leftist would have to concede that despite the powerful utopian visions permeating Lawrence’s finest work, a book like Chatterley cannot transcend its own class-bound limitations.
Objections such as these, however, could be leveled against most of the modernist literary canon in a sense, and, when critiques such as these become so broadly applicable, they tend to tell us less and less about the work at hand. A third potential pitfall facing a 2006 Chatterley adaptation is a bit more hazardous, since it speaks to the current state of cinema esthetics. Why adapt a work of literature at all? Over the past twenty to thirty years, a broad consensus has developed among film’s cognoscenti, one that also paradoxically has to do with the legacy of modernism. Cinema is widely understood to be a visual art first and foremost, with camera movement, mise-en-scène, staging, and editing standing forth as the ineluctable “stuff” of the film medium. Many literary adaptations, having had the nerve to violate modernist doctrine by filtering one medium through another, have been consigned to the ‘middlebrow’ category. Visual stylists such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Abbas Kiarostami are seen as the true future of cinema, as opposed to dutiful page-to-screen workmen like Lasse Halström and Volker Schlondörff.
In recent years there have been at least two ways in which intellectually oriented directors have tackled this problem, and, as we will see, Pascale Ferran’s Chatterley provides a mélange of both, with mixed results. One major strain of adaptation in cinematic modernism has followed the lessons of Robert Bresson, whose radical parsimony, combined with a delicate but nevertheless sumptuous attention to the physical surfaces of the world, allowed his films to treat text as an object to manipulate, just as one would a prop or a key light. This approach reaches a somewhat logical conclusion in the films of Straub and Huillet and Manoel de Oliveira, wherein the sheer fact of talk’s “untheatrical” qualities allows for a purer contemplation of cinematic time. In their hands, literature becomes an almost sculptural object. The other major approach to modernist literary adaptation (although these days some might call it postmodern, I suppose) is to employ distancing techniques that underscore not only the gap between literature and film, but also between past and present. Instead of using cinema to create a window onto a long-gone historical world, films such as Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle, Terence Davies’s The House of Mirth, and Olivier Assayas’s Sentimental Destinies draw constant attention to the fundamental inaccessibility of temps perdu, as well as the disconnect between older modes of social and sexual comportment and the contemporary effort to approximate them. This Brechtian strain essentially treats literary adaptation as an asymptote. An intentional “failure” to faithfully and transparently recreate the world of Conrad or Wharton affirms the vitality of modernism as an esthetic epistemology, since that failure inscribes the film-object with the internal clash of incommensurable mediums.
Ferran’s Lady Chatterley stakes out a middle-ground between the two approaches described above, although the film does not make immediately evident that this is how it will proceed. From the outset, it seems clear that Ferran has no intention of delivering a straightforward Lawrence adaptation; she appears at first to be committing herself to a dry, attenuated form of distanciation. In the tense opening shots, with Connie and her environment practically trapped in cinematic amber, it looks as though the heart of Ferran’s intellectual project lay in tracing the dissonance that cinema can introduce into the Lawrentian world. For most of the first half-hour, Chatterley is still, stiff, and awkward, doing everything in its power to drain the Lawrence material of both its upper-class sheen and any hint of the libidinal stirrings to come. At this point, rather than turning the idea of a period piece inside out in the manner of Chéreau, Ferran appears to be plunging into Merchant-Ivory mannerism with both feet, in order to arrive at something disconcertingly dead. Much of the film is so quiet it seems as if the soundtrack has dropped out altogether. The Chatterleys’ manor, surrounded by rolling hills and autumnal foliage, is photographed in the starkest natural light possible, and yet the effect is to make the landscape look washed out, flattened, subdued by human intervention, in fact. Close-ups of natural features bear none of the sublimity one finds in, say, Kubrick or Malick. Rather, plants and flowers are presented baldly, as impervious environmental facts, caring little about the human drama they envelop. This stultifying presentation is in keeping with the Chatterleys’ world, of course; the paralysis of Clifford (Hyppolite Girardot) is emotional as well as physical, and moments of potential tenderness between him and his wife Connie (Marina Hands), such as the sponge bath she administers, are always cut short by an upper-class propriety that has calcified into bitterness. But formally, Ferran’s draining of all vital fluids from these sequences points to Lawrence’s view of a natural world meticulously manicured into a tense Victorian grimace, the landscape as the face of domination.
And yet, slowly over the course of the first hour, bizarre, unmotivated camera movements and edits begin to warp this space, pointing to a brewing restlessness. This approach to cinematography, sound, and landscape fits perfectly with Ferran’s portrait of Connie as a young woman confined to terminal boredom and enforced stateliness, a mere trophy for her disabled industrialist husband. Employing an ever-so-slight Brechtian distance in performance and characterization, Ferran and Hands depict Lady Chatterley as a forerunner to Carol White in Todd Haynes’s Safe, a woman so constricted by social convention and the feminine duty to conspicuously consume that she becomes bloodless, a vacant vessel. Of course, Chatterley has a bodily awakening of sorts, one denied to the suburban Carol. Her affair with Parkin the gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h) taps into her inner life. In this way, Ferran begins to harness both the potential of dramatic performance and the Cubist possibilities of post-Bressonian découpage, redefining Chatterley and its exploration of female sexuality as a contemporary and a specifically cinematic problem.
Several early scenes between Connie and Parkin illustrate Ferran’s ability to work on multiple tracks, a rigor that she regrettably cannot sustain. During their second meeting, for example, Parkin provides Connie with the key to his hut that she had requested. We see Parkin emerge from the hut, with the camera following his torso down and abruptly panning left along the length of his arm, as he places the key in Connie’s hand—a close-up object-exchange that immediately calls Bresson to mind. The shot concludes by tilting up Connie’s arm and torso, ending on her face as she thanks him. She asks if her presence will disturb him, and the camera whip-pans back to Parkin’s face on the right as he tells her that it won’t. In this single unbroken shot, Ferran and cinematographer Julien Hirsch consecrate the union between Parkin and Connie. The film then cuts to a one-shot of Connie looking off in the distance, followed by a point-of-view shot of the unkempt landscape around Parkin’s hut. Finally, a cut to a two-shot of Connie and Parkin, now separated once again by distance, as Connie exits the frame on the left. For the remainder of the sequence, we follow Connie as she moves through the woods on her way back to Wragby Manor, noticing wild grass, a threatening sky rotating in her vision. This is followed by a quick fade to black. In this sequence, one of several that departs from the usual conventions of classical construction, Ferran finds uniquely cinematic means to convey Lawrence’s utopian moment of desire and natural splendor, allowing for a transcendence of class difference. What’s more, at such moments Ferran’s film displays an internalization of the critiques of Lawrence’s class and gender politics, since Connie’s ability to traverse the woods surrounding the manor is the prime marker of her class privilege.
These are potentially radical moments, which hint at the greater, more adventurous film Ferran clearly wanted to make. Unfortunately, Lady Chatterley follows a rather clean arc, beginning with straitjacketed normalcy, moving through subtle but unmistakable formal subversion, and ending with a return to conventional forms. This is certainly the case in terms of the film’s treatment of landscape and natural imagery, an area of esthetic inquiry on which Ferran stakes much of the film’s intellectual credibility. In fact, Ferran’s interest in the cinema of place is most likely a major reason that she chose to adapt Lawrence’s second version of the Chatterley story, John Thomas and Lady Jane. Although most commentators agree that this draft (named after the lovers’ nicknames for one another’s private parts) is streamlined and rather terse, finding Lawrence in a sort of “less talk, more rock” mood that abjured much of the psychological exploration of the final Chatterley novel, the John Thomas edition does spend the most time of any of the existing versions describing the natural features around Wragby manor. What’s more, the director has stated in interviews that the work of Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was a primary inspiration for the Chatterley project, and his film Blissfully Yours in particular served as a kind of touchstone. Apichatpong’s films, frequently based on Thai folklore and an exploration of spatial relationships between urban areas and the hinterlands, are among the most formally radical narrative films of the last twenty years, partly because the director is able to display landscape and environment as haptic and experiential, serving to shape not only human consciousness but also the body itself—its social, political, and sexual potentials. In many ways “Joe” (as Apichatpong is called in the West, at his request) would be the ideal filmmaker to tackle Lawrence, since his films broach the country/city, wild/tame dialectics so dear to Lawrence but also subvert convenient Western dualisms and Eurocentric philosophical conundrums, by refusing to afford them the centrality they’ve come to expect.
Ferran, for her part, cannot quite escape these cognitive maps for understanding space and landscape. The result is that Ferran’s attention to natural features, which ostensibly forms the link between Lawrence’s John Thomas edition and the visual orientation of present-day cinematic modernism, is both photographically declarative and spatially inarticulate. While initial moments with Parkin show Connie experiencing untamed nature and being struck, even overwhelmed by it, the film soon reduces this landscape to a kind of shorthand—the sphere of sexual liberation—limitingits tactile potential to mere semiotics. A swirling sky here, an unmowed meadow there—it all becomes visually inert, tamed by the topiary gestures of the editing room.
Eventually, Ferran stages the Lawrentian battle between humans’ domination of nature and their commune with it in the most literal possible fashion. In an extended sequence near the end of the film’s extended denouement, we see Clifford accompanying Connie around the grounds of the estate in his brand new combustion-powered wheelchair. This sequence begins with overt discussion of the Chatterleys’ class position, in particular Clifford’s intention to prohibit all future strikes at his factory. Eventually, we see Clifford and his chair struggling to get up a steep meadow hill. Connie tries to help, but Clifford angrily refuses, noting that the engine has been built to power the chair without human assistance, and the motor must dominate the landscape. In time, Parkin is summoned to offer additional assistance, the motor craps out completely, and Parkin ferries the techno-emasculated Clifford back to the manor. This sequence, which is taken directly from the novel, is a masterful encapsulation of one of the book’s overriding themes, a tense slow-burn bringing much sublimated tension to the surface yet allowing it to remain unspoken, on the level of action. And yet, clearly this impressive sequence belongs in a different kind of film, one that has more obviously cast its lot with traditional literary adaptation. In essence, Ferran employs the landscape in this sequence in much the same way Clifford and his chair intend to, marking it out as a space for activity, subdued by human will, and not really permitted to assert itself as space.
In a similar vein, Ferran’s Chatterley broaches the sorts of political questions that would need to be asked in a self-aware, fully theorized film, but ultimately does not follow them through to any meaningful conclusion. While the final scenes reveal an intriguing feminized side to Parkin, who, it turns out, has become a gamekeeper in order to dodge his class-dictated fate in the coal mines, Ferran cannot or will not explore the ways in which Parkin’s unconventional masculinity complicates not only Connie’s partially authorized objectification of him, but also the essentialist eroticism that pervade the Lawrentian universe. In the third hour, especially, the editing becomes smoother, the camerawork more classically graceful, the pacing far more plot-driven. (Not having seen Ferran’s version for French television, which runs a full fifty minutes longer, I cannot say whether this hurried final act is the result of editing constraints.) Granted, not everything in Chatterley’s final hour is sheer boilerplate. Ferran includes some incongruous formal elements, such as a home-movie sequence and a couple of unexpected passages of voice-over narration from Ferran herself.
But where the earlier breaks from convention seemed strategic and precise, these late-in-the-game curveballs feel almost randomly deployed. In spite of this or that inexplicable moment, the general drift of Lady Chatterley is one of increased normalization of the Lawrence material, as well as the habitual ways in which cinema is used to bring it to life. Only a strange ellipsis between the final two shots returns us to Ferran’s zone of productive ambiguity. As Connie and Parkin converse under a tree, they discuss Connie’s possibly taking her savings, leaving Clifford and setting Parkin up on a farm of his own, where the two can live. In the final shot that immediately follows, Connie tells Parkin that if she ever feels the need to leave Clifford, she will write to him and ask him to come for her. Was this splice some kind of Pialatian time-skip, obscuring a more practical shift in the lovers’ plans? Is Ferran showing us one single ending, followed by a completely different one, reminding us of the different versions of Lawrence’s novel? Or perhaps this final sequence is really just a minor formal hiccup that looked huge in context, since by this point I was practically aching for a return to the dense thicket of an unruly cinema as yet untamed.—Michael Sicinski