Monday, August 6, 2007
Recently, I have taken up watching a lot more French cinema. This isn’t my area of scholarly expertise (I'm starting to wonder if I really have one), but a new fascination that has developed over the past year.
Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley (France, 2006) is adapted not solely from D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but from a second published draft, John Thomas and Lady Jane. What’s notable about this filmic adaptation is that it is the first directed by a woman. Perhaps this knowledge affected my experience of this film, which is more about pleasure and sensuality than about the more narrowly framed ideas people have about sexuality and infidelity, but this also brings up questions about audience identification, which I don’t really have time to address here.
Lady Chatterley goes against many of the expectations one would have about a film that charts the adulterous affair of a bored Lady (Marina Hands) with the gamekeeper Parkin (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch) on her estate, a form of escape from a loveless marriage to a wheelchair bound aristocrat, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot). The film clocks in at nearly three hours, and the first 45 minutes or so include almost no dialogue, no sex, but instead scenes of a woman waking up to her natural surroundings as if for the first time. It helps that the cinematography (by Julien Hirsch) is stunning, with Hands always central and striking against the woodland landscape in various seasons.
Also refreshing is the almost complete lack of conflict that arises from the affair itself. Not once do these lovers seem scared they will get caught; there appears to be no need for jealousy, resentment, or regret; even the threat of pregnancy does not appear to pose problems. The conflict of class is alluded to infrequently; when Lady Chatterley asks her husband about socialism, he laughs at her, and tells her to think about how she interacts with her servants. Class is an issue the gamekeeper brings up, but one that his Lady frequently dismisses as inconsequential.
At times, Ferran may focus nearly ten minutes on the miracle of Lady Chatterley’s legs sans stockings, a pair of hands, or the back of a neck. This minimal and more pensive approach is its strength and not its weakness; while some critics take issue with the lack of animal-like desire of Lady Chatterley and Parkin’s couplings (perhaps these folks are conditioned by how sex is rendered in American cinema?), Ferran understands that desire first develops via imagination and fantasy in the mind, and this leisurely gaze, or cinematic foreplay, will ultimately lead to consummation (six times). The Lady’s pleasure is central, since this story is more about her than her lover, and is not complicated by the ideas of Love until the film is nearly over. Ferran’s feminist interpretation of the Lawrence story does take its liberties, but these are made essentially to illuminate Constance Chatterley as an early modern woman, stripping away a lot of dialogue to let images and bodies speak for themselves.