Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lady Chatterly: corporeal and class liberation, this time nice and slow

Based on John Thomas and Lady Jane, an earlier draft of D.H. Lawrence’s scandalous 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover –a draft most notable for being less didactic than its successor– French wrier/director Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley certainly trumps all earlier attempts at adapting Lawrence’s tale of corporeal and class liberation. Pleasurably languorous in its unraveling, Ferran’s approach accounts for a broad spectrum of the sensuality and natural atonement Lawrence was championing. Landscape, seasons, weather and time; phallic, intricate flora; measured sexual exploration; a careful recognition of how closely environmental and spiritual disintegration are linked: all of these elements are woven into the mix here in what is a surprisingly absorbing two-and-a-half-hours of period adultery and unadulterated splendour in the grass.

“The body behaves in strange ways” is a conspicuous snippet from a conversation between several men near the start of Lady Chatterley, a film as much about the mutilation and emasculation of men by war and exploitive labour as it is about the oppression of social mores upon our erotic impulses. Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot) survived the trenches but lost the use of the lower half of his body. His impotence is poorly concealed by his authority over a mine and its underpaid workers. His wife Constance (the extraordinary Marina Hands) is, strictly speaking, surviving bourgeois wifedom, but is morbidly losing her sense of self-knowledge and vivacity. Thus its something of a miracle that she’s accidentally granted a glimpse of the gamekeeper Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h) as he bathes his naked, muscular torso out near his cabin in an isolated clearing on the couple’s property. One look was all it took –from here onward, it’s a seductively gradual progression toward a chain of secret consummation.

Broad-cheeked and freckled, Hands’ Constance conveys her awakening in graceful moments of distraction, curious private examinations of her own naked body, and a captivatingly lucid series of exchanges with Coulloc’h’s touchingly vulnerable Parkin, who resembles something of a more hawkish, work-hardened Brando. Whether it’s a simple cradling of a breast through crimson velvet, the gentle stroking of cotton-covered cock with the back of a hand, a vast palm spreading over a thigh quivering in stark white stockings, some frantic thrusting against the base of a tree, or the utter abandon of the lovers running naked and finally collapsing into sex in the warm summer rain, director and actors alike have conspired here to express freedom with an immediacy that binds raw experience with philosophical nuance. It’s also, needlessly to say, pretty sexy stuff.

Through the basic story here is of course the outline of 400,000 impossibly banal porn and soft-core Euro-skin-flicks –not to mention the era-spanning trilogy of forbidden love masterpieces composed of All That Heaven Allows (1955), Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (74) and Far From Heaven (2002)– Ferran manages to imbue it with thoughtful complications without burdening her film with too much polemic. Constance’s carnal desire is complicated by an equal desire to get pregnant. Parkin’s romantic needs are complicated by the irresistible call of his own solitude. Clifford’s role as the repressed master figure is complicated by his own tragedy. The viewer is able to find sympathy for each of these characters and still become swept up in the thrust of Lawrence’s argument for a balance between the dictates of the body and the mind, an accomplishment to be applauded.

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