It used to be a rite of passage for American tourists to smuggle “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” past Customs, feeling terribly hip. Then Roth v. United States pried D.H. Lawrence loose from the heavy-breathing censors, and through the ’60s and ’70s, he rose high in the college canon. Today, after a pounding by feminist critics, the apostle of sensual joy has somewhat fallen off the radar. Enter Pascale Ferran, a brilliant French filmmaker, to shake the dust off Lawrence’s most notorious novel. “Lady Chatterley,” as Ferran titles her rapturous film, is the story, famously, of noblewoman Constance Chatterley’s passion for the gamekeeper of her disabled husband. Adapted from “John Thomas and Lady Jane,” Lawrence’s second version of the novel (Stateside we read the wordier third), “Lady Chatterley” has become something of a cinematic event. It marks the return not only of Constance and the gamekeeper cavorting naked in the rain, but also of Pascale Ferran, a filmmaker admired in France, but little known here.
After an eleven year hiatus, following “Coming to Terms with the Dead” (awarded the Cannes Camera d’Or in 1994), and “The Age of Possibility” in 1995, Ferran has made good on the abundant promise of her earlier work. “Chatterley” has collected no fewer than five Cesar awards (French Oscar equivalent).
Ferran has pulled off the daunting task of adapting a tale about sexual fulfilment with minimal plot, built around love-making scenes, which in themselves mark plot points. Since the chasm of class fails to scandalize today as it did when the book was published in 1928, Ferran chose to foreground the theme of “love as an opportunity to access intimate truths.”
The Franco-German arts channel ARTE, which embraced her project from the start, gave Ferran the freedom to cast an ensemble of actors who bring to the story an immediacy and truthful ring that never falter. Marina Hands’ Constance, her life ebbing away at Clifford Chatterley’s side in his stately manor, conveys, after her encounters with Parkin, a woman reborn. Hands is in practically every frame, and we discover this luminous actress as Connie discovers herself.
As the taciturn Parkin, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, with his earth-hugging build, conveys an aura of “deep France,” a dignity not yoked to money or status, and — Ferran’s words — “incredible virility.” As Clifford, paralyzed south of the waist by war wounds, Hippolyte Girardot is watchful and coiled with rage at life’s low blows, a man who owns everything, but controls little.
But why is Parkin pronounced “Park-keen,” and all these people speaking French in an English coal-mining community? Thanks to Ferran’s artistry we give this discordance a pass. Her genre-crossing “Chatterley” plays like a piece of music, with sets of motifs repeating and adding meaning with each repetition. Early on, for example, Clifford and his Cambridge-educated cronies discuss battle casualties, observing that “the body works in mysterious ways.” The line is expanded in quite another direction each time Connie and Parkin meet in the cabin to explore the body’s mysterious ways. And in this richly suggestive script, Connie’s trips through the forest from manor to cabin act as a refrain, each time upping the ante and building in intensity.
That Connie’s transformation converges with the spring awakening, in lyrical images alive with the forest’s sounds, might border on cheesy. While the scene of the lovers sticking posies in each other’s pubic hair might border on the ridiculous. But this stuff is pure Lawrence, an author who found God in the “life force” as incarnated by nature; who on an ordinary day might write: “the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture…” Ferran’s adaptation is also unexpectedly poignant. I defy anyone to watch the closing scene, when Constance and Parkin speak their hearts, without misting up.
For all its glories, though, the aspect of “Chatterley” that’s bound to grab notice is the innovative way Ferran has filmed love-making. The candor of the six sex scenes (“How curious, it’s tiny now, like a little bud!”) go against what Ferran terms the “currently ‘authorized’ representations of desire in cinema.” iW and Ferran discussed this topic and more when the filmmaker, a small woman with a great laugh and the look of a philosophy student, was in New York for the screening of “Lady Chatterley” at the Tribeca Film Festival. Kino Film will open the film in limited release beginning Friday, June 22.
indieWIRE: What prompted you to adapt this novel for film?
Ferran: I’m the opposite of you, I didn’t know D.H. Lawrence at all. I discovered him very recently in a book, “On the Superiority of Anglo Saxon Literature.” Lawrence is underrated in France. We have a cliche image of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” as a rather musty erotic novel from the past. No one had told me it’s simply the most beautiful love story in the world [laughs].
But I greatly prefer the 2nd version [Lawrence wrote three markedly different versions]. The third was too hard to adapt: the industrial revolution figures heavily, it would require a large cast.
When I read the second version, I had the feeling that everything that I would have to take out of the third, if I adapted it, Lawrence had already done in the second. It was as if he authorized me, actually said to me, ‘Take the second version and feel free to do what you want.’ It was very strange. The book speaks to me intimately about my life, and I have the impression that it does the same to millions of people.”
iW: If they’re lucky.
F: Right, if they’re lucky [laughter].
iW: A question about form. Why all those short takes in the early part of the film. There’s one of Connie, for instance, just dozing off in a chair in front of the cabin [before connecting with Parkin].
F: It’s the way the film manages the issue of time. Through those pointilistic scenes I was trying to convey that in the beginning, everything sort of merges together for Connie. But after the love scene with Parkin, she exists again in the intensity of the present moment.
iW: What made you decide to use such devices as voiceovers and intertitles. A paradox for me is that the film is both literary and very cinematic.
F: The intertitles gave me more freedom. I didn’t have much time to write the script. And above all, I wanted to avoid musty classicism and that academic style.
iW: Like Masterpiece Theater.
F: Exactly. I like the great stylistic liberty in Lawrence, his spontaneity…the passages in stream of consciousness. He’s the anti-Flaubert, who was a perfectionist working over each sentence hundreds of times. I mean, Lawrence wrote his novel three separate times, and each time he wrote it in three months.
And I thought, I have six months to adapt it, no big deal, I’m going to do it quickly. Giving priority to places I need to get to in the story. And if I’m not sure how to create a scene, I’ll just use intertitles. That allowed me to accelerate or slow down when I needed to.
For example, an intertitle reads, “For two days Constance didn’t go to the cabin because Clifford’s aunt had arrived” — and then the aunt leaves and you see Connie dashing through the woods like a lunatic. In that way you’re more in her head, her energy. I find it a freer and more modern way of telling a story.
iW: How did you prepare the actors for the love scenes? Two of them are in real time…
F: We worked [laughs].
iW: Could you give an example?
F: We rehearsed those scenes. They’re very important and also very scary. Because filming such intimacy exposes both actors and director. And you fear not being up to the artistic challenge it presents.
I kept saying to the actors, and I think they agreed: ‘There are not many films that do those scenes convincingly. And: we’re going to adapt this great book, and we’re going to film it convincingly, in a way no one has done before.’ And I thought, isn’t this presumptuous? who the hell do we think we are? [laughs]
So I thought we must absolutely rehearse those [love-making] scenes exactly the way we’d rehearse scenes of dialogue. But in this case, there aren’t words. So two or three months before the shoot, we spent a week, just the three of us, in a little dance rehearsal studio. Just doing work exercises. In the morning a dancer came in to do warmup exercises with the actors that involved physical contact. [And if “La Dolce Musto” is to be believed, they also looked at the undergarments–garter belts and panties — and tried to get used to them.]
I absolutely wanted, by the end of the week, a complicity between us. A lack of modesty. It was also important to be able to pronounce words without embarrassment–and bearing in mind that later on there would be a crew. To be able to say, ‘At that moment there’s penetration…’ And after a certain moment you ejaculate. These are hard words to say–it’s even hard now” [laughs, along with a translator sitting in]. If beween the three of us we couldn’t say these words, we’d have…zip.
We had to get to the point where the actors touch each other as part of the work, and not connected to any desire between them as real people. Like dancers.
iW: You mean the actors weren’t actually aroused?
F: Of course not [laughs].
iW: It sure looked like it.
F: Well, yeah. The characters desired each other, but the actors themselves, no.
iW: But he had a hard-on–you know, in that scene.
F: Well, that’s work, too [laughs]… He had a hard-on because the character was supposed to at that moment. It’s artifice in the same way people kill each other on screen.
I don’t mean to say that it’s not possible at certain times to mix it all together. But hey, if actors had to be madly in love with each other, the film would get too complicated. These actors felt enormous respect and empathy. But our starting princple was that there would be no desire between them. Though we needed to portray it.
The fact that the actors could hide behind their characters made it [more] rea; and gave them the courage to unveil themselves. The closer we got to the spirit of the character–and the farther from the actors themselves–the easier it became for them to express very intimate things.
In the same way, because I could hide behind a story that takes place in England in 1920, and doesn’t directly tell my life story, I was able to expose myself so much. Otherwise, you know, it would be obscene, impossible…
iW: How is your way of filming love-making different from the more usual ways?
F: In the two authorized representations of desire and sex, there’s first the almost obsolete way, where as soon as the lovers are in bed, the film brutally changes in nature: music, dissolves, ellipsis. While in the “modern” style, sex is detached from all affect, basically the high-life of animal drive. Only the body talks.
I’ve shown the whole megillah–how you’re the same person before, during and after love. All your human possibilities function in the love scenes. They’re saturated with emotion. At least I modestly tried for that. What’s so deeply modern about Lawrence’s book is that it puts the body first, but doesn’t pit the body against the characters’ thoughts or feelings.
iW: I wondered why in Connie’s passage from repressed wife to passionate lover she never felt any guilt.
F: So did I. But I love that, it’s true to the book: there’s never a sense of sin or transgression. That’s what scandalized in England when it was published. I find that aspect magnificent and liberating. Even Marina [Hands] said, No no, there’s never a shred of guilt [laughs].
iW: You made Clifford oddly sympathetic, despite his defense of class inequities.
F: Yeah, I had to show why Connie had been in love with this man at one time. It wasn’t an arranged marriage. And he was a product of his period and class. When he could walk he would have been quite seductive
iW: Parkin and Connie’s final speeches really blew me away.
F: I’m delighted you like that scene, it’s the most controversial in the film. Some people loved it, others who liked it less think the film could almost have ended before that.
For me that would be completely impossible. What’s great about Parkin’s journey is that he finds language. He dares to express emotion. Everyone struggles with that, men more than women, perhaps. And the fact that this character–who throughout the film has so much trouble speaking–would dare to acknowledge how Connie has changed his life… For me that’s really powerful.
iW: In that final speech, where Parkin speaks of his feminine side, I heard Lawrence speaking of himself.
F: Yes, and thoughout the film the poles reverse. The lovers take turns being passive and active–or actively passive–they switch around. And Parkin is unbelievably virile, but sometimes shows a feminine delicacy and childishness.
iW: Do you consider the ending optimistic?
F: Oh, for me it is. I can’t imagine a more opitimistic ending. The future is open. And the future will be what Constance and Parkin choose to make of it, or don’t. But for two and a half hours you’ve watched them put something together. Surely they’ll again manage to reinvent their lives. Even if they fail, these people are so much better than in the beginning, more beautiful, more evolved, more venturesome… With their bare hands they’ve invented a new world.
iW: One last question. Lawrence was obsessed with relinquishing ego and wilfulness. The kind that’s expressed in that scene when Clifford’s motorized wheelchair conks out, but he insists on driving it up the hill…
F: Yes, that scene and the futile expression of will is very faithful to the book. I want, I want, therefore I’ll conquer.
iW: Since Lawrence promoted a freer, more open way of dealing with life, I was wondering: in making this film did you tap into that?
F: I’m so glad you asked that, you’re the only journalist who has. It was precisely my working method for the film: that it would not be based on my will alone, but on a communal effort. Even the technicians’ input was important. My working method was “c’est par la douceur on attrape les choses” [it’s by gentleness that one accomplishes things], not by enforcing will. Of course the standard image of a director is pure will. I tried not to be in that position. I wanted a living process.