Showered with Cesar awards in its native France, Pascale Ferran‘s “Lady Chatterley” faces a more uncertain fate stateside (Gallic awards committees can’t resist a pretty woman in a field of sun-kissed wildflowers; just ask Claude Berri). Though based on a version of D.H. Lawrence‘s long-banned, “pornographic” final novel, it’s too restive and restrained to draw in the blithe, shock-hungry Terry Richardson/”9 Songs” contingent, too explicit for the AARP-discount crowd looking for a period romance that’ll act as a soothing tonic – and as for American critics, there’s never any shortage of twits eager to reenact the aesthetic skirmishes of fifty years past, “daring” to fatuously sneer at the sight of a petticoat.
It’s a work that deserves more consideration, though it’s worth asking: Why another film of “Lady Chatterley” now? Lawrence’s story has been brought to the screen several times already – Lady Constance Chatterley (here played the half-British actress Marina Hands), neglected by her war-shattered, impotent husband, blows aside all social protocol to surrender to the caresses of their estate’s groundskeeper (a brusque Jean-Louis Coulloc’h). The answer: Regeneration through sex, in response to a world tormented by violence and class disparity, is a more relevant, and better, idea than most movies manage.
The 168-minute cut being released in theaters distills Ferran’s TV miniseries, shearing it of nearly an hour – in its present state, some referred – to plot points seem to have been left behind in the editing suite, but I didn’t mind; it sometimes feels superficially like a Maurice Pialat film (though without the insight into interclass sex seen in “Loulou“). A goodly amount of that still-imposing runtime is given over to copulation, the intimate documentation of Chatterley’s increasing comfort and satisfaction with her new lover; and though a note of drudgery sets in, the sex is good sex, shot and blocked with intelligence, relying on faces more than anything else to communicate Connie’s gradual expansion.
Lensed by Julien Hirsch, the florid passages of romantic-erotic idyll are suffused with bursting, blossoming, growing things, the passage of time referred to in ellipsis featuring handsome views of the Chatterley grounds in the raiment of the seasons. But there is no more instructive illustration of the difference between the pleasingly picturesque and the actually spiritual than that which comes in placing “Lady Chatterley” alongside another Francophonic imagination of the English countryside, Truffaut‘s “Two English Girls,” which, as shot by Nestor Almendros, remains an invigorating gush of light and air. In fact, Ferran’s “Chatterley” comes off badly in almost any of the canonical comparisons it invites – to Lawrence, Truffaut, Maurice Pialat, Jane Campion, among others – without ever establishing an identity unto itself. At times you might believe this cross-channel hybrid was entirely the product of the British film industry, in all of the worst ways. A distinct “almost… but not quite” air permeates all of the lovely, calendar-perfect fecundity, the performances as manicured as the grounds of a Normandy estate, the artfully timed fade-outs, the period-detailed, deftly staged scenes that flitter by, lacking for nothing except for a single thing to make them stick in the mind.
Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.