The French director Pascale Ferran bases his famously titled new film, Lady Chatterley, not quite on D.H. Lawrence's groundbreaking 1928 novel, but rather on one of Lawrence's two earlier versions of the story, the one he titled John Thomas and Lady Jane. It's a good thing for literary history that Lawrence gave it some thought.
As well as he can in our 21st-century culture of sexual openness, Ferran tries to suggest the repressed sexuality of the story's time and place: Long before she commits adultery, the married Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) sees the rough gamekeeper Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch) shirtless from behind as he splashes water on himself while bathing outdoors.
She freezes at the sight, tiptoes quietly away, and sits down in the woods to compose herself, at once frightened and titillated by what she's just seen. Later, in her boudoir, she gazes at her nude body in the mirror, longing for an excitement that her husband, left paralyzed by World War I, can no longer supply.
Of course, she returns to the cabin where Parkin works. Their first lovemaking, which takes a while to occur, is silent (except for a few moans) and quick (he's a fast comer). Fortunately, for them and for us, it gets better.
Lady Chatterley is an intelligent film, if rather unabsorbing, and surprisingly old-fashioned in its meticulous presentation of character and psychology. Brief title cards between scenes, and an occasional narrator, maintain a literary quality, as does the film's deliberate pace. You can almost hear Lawrence's prose narrating the many passages that contain no dialogue.
Naturally, symbolism abounds: the darling buds of May, waiting to be deflowered; soft downy peeps, waiting to grow up and be devoured. (The first sex occurs after Connie gently holds a peep, and Parkin somewhat less gently caresses her breast.) We watch Parkin's rough hands driving the nails to construct the pen that contains the cocks awaiting slaughter. I hope you can read that last sentence: My fingers quivered as I typed.
There's nothing in Ferran's film that compares to the originality or erotic intensity of Women in Love, Ken Russell's exquisite 1969 film based on another Lawrence novel. In fact, hearing these English characters speak French is a bit disorienting, if only because the French are so known for their eroticism, and the British, decidedly, are not. (Lawrence's novel was first published in England only in 1960.)
Toward the end -- all at once, and in conversation -- some of Lawrence's deeper themes emerge: the sensitive man, the modern relationship, defiance of convention, and inequality of sex and class. There's a telling moment where Connie, contemplating the possibility of having a child by Parkin, watches a group of miners, black with soot, ending their day's work. But all in all, this was probably a film that didn't need to be made about a book that's better read. In French, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., Aug. 24.