Lady Chatterley (18)

Pascale Ferran gives us restraint, reality and a refreshing bit of flab in this superb French version of Lawrence's tale of love and lust
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The Independent Culture

Effortlessly, it seems, Pascale Ferran's French-language Lady Chatterley reverses preconceptions about images of sex on both sides of the Channel. The flesh has had a rough time in French art cinema lately, with directors tending to show sex as a vicious, violent affair (Gaspar Noé), as brutish rutting with overtones of existential anguish (Bruno Dumont), or as a source of outright gloom to be accompanied by abstruse philosophising (Catherine Breillat). But Ferran reminds us that the French can do good sex too: in her film, sex is matter-of-fact, an open-air affair, and beneficial to body and soul. How very 1920s. How very D H Lawrence.

At the same time, however, Ferran overturns the received image of Lawrence's story. Her film is not the lady-and-gamekeeper fantasy turned into torrid cliché by adaptations such as the 1981 vehicle for Sylvia (Emmanuelle) Kristel: don't expect a gasping, lace-trimmed Connie swooning in the arms of a Chippendale in cords. Ferran's film may be true to the spirit of Lawrence, yet it's not what we tend to think of as archetypal Lawrence: there's no inflated mystical rapture, none of the much-parodied "bah-gum" machismo, nothing of the sensationalistic image of Lawrence that persisted in the wake of the Chatterley obscenity trial.

This superb film – a box-office hit and multiple award-winner in France – is adapted not from Lady Chatterley's Lover itself, the 1928 novel, but from its earlier second version, John Thomas and Lady Jane. Ferran returns to first principles: she gives us the novel's liaison as if in a pristine, more innocent state, before scandal and cliché touched it.

The film is still set – and partly shot – in England, but you never worry about the English names pronounced with French accents. We first meet Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) at home with husband Sir Clifford (a tense, steely performance by Hippolyte Girardot), who has lost the use of his legs in the First World War. The film is immediately situated in a real time and a real history: as he and an officer friend ruefully discuss the German artillery, we're reminded of the absolute scar left by the war. Constance, meanwhile, demurely listens. Given the routine of evenings in with Sir Clifford (she embroiders, he reads aloud from Racine), little wonder that Constance is soon ailing and a doctor is diagnosing "reduced vitality".

Fortunately, the patented "Lawrentian" cure for that is forthcoming. Walking in the woods, Constance comes across Parkin the gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h). In fact, she sees a naked back before she sees a man, and withdraws in girlish shock. Cautiously approaching this polite but reticent man, she starts spending time around him, enjoying the quiet of his cabin: there's a hint of gentrified tourism in her hovering. She's fascinated by his attentive, businesslike way with his hands, marvelling as he builds a coop for his pheasants. It's not long before she feels those hands on her breasts, and the rest is... well, literary history, but in this version, something more interesting than the story you think you know.

This Lady Chatterley is distinctive for its down-to-earth restraint. There's no rhetoric: with its long takes and patient attention to people and to nature, the film feels muted, classical. The sex scenes are shot as if we just happened to be witnessing them. There's no fantasy in them – these are not toned, beautifully-lit bodies, but fleshy, with gravity and texture and imperfections that emerge in the natural light of Julien Hirsch's photography.

Marina Hands, with her frank, flat, open face, has a square-set, pre-Raphaelite beauty, but when naked, she wobbles and the goose pimples show. Her screen partner Coulloc'h is hardly the traditional simmering hunk, but resembles more of a bulky, balding, middle-aged woodwork teacher. The point is Parkin's delicacy. When he and Constance first make love, there's an extraordinary tenderness as he feels her stockinged knee like a sculptor.

Ferran's film also does nature magnificently. As the film passes through the seasons, she gives us close-ups of chestnuts, undergrowth, water dripping on moss (any of its nature images could be sexual metaphors if you liked, but sometimes a twig is just a twig). It's a very attentive, observant film, good at English pastoral textures and colours and the sound of rain in woods. But there's nothing falsely idyllic here, for this is also a political film. Constance may cross the class divide with Parkin, but that divide can't be dismissed, not in 1920s England.

There's neither embarrassment nor facile humour in those scenes that could have induced wincing: the lovers garnishing each other's bodies with flowers, or running naked through the rain. It's hard to explain exactly what makes Lady Chatterley so extraordinary, as it's all done with a miraculous absence of fuss.

But the press notes quote Lawrence to Aldous Huxley – "I think that art should reveal the heartbeat of the moment"– and that, somehow, is just what Ferran's terrific film achieves.

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