Monday, August 6, 2007

Lady Chatterley

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.


Amit said...

perhaps these folks are conditioned by how sex is rendered in American cinema?

I think you may have something there. Contrast the sex scenes with those another movie that broke some barriers - Basic Instinct, though the director of that movie was European. Or did you have movies by American directors in mind?

I liked the parallels Ferran seems to draw between nature, climate (winter to spring) and the progression of Lady Chatterley's sexual journey - from having hurried sex with clothes on the first time, to being confident in asking the gamekeeper to take off his clothes too and to wait till she had a good look before he blew off the candle/lamp.

I still have to put my thoughts about this movie on my blog.

Film Snob said...

Amit, I did not have specific directors in mind, but Basic Instinct is a good example for discussion here. For many American audiences and critics, sex becomes a fetish or a commodity to be consumed in many films released in Hollywood. So, Basic Instinct becomes famous for a particular shot of Stone's crotch, and a film like 9 1/2 Weeks (ironically, another example of a director who's not American) becomes known as the "soft porn" film with the ice cubes. It seems like American audiences have a hard time responding to sex as natural, as something integral or central to a narrative or portrayal of human relationship, but rather often react to it as spectacle, (this relates to Tom Gunning's "Cinema of Attractions" idea) as something that specifically interrupts the narrative. Audiences know that sex sells, and I think this attitude affects how many folks "read" sex in American film--as fragmented, rather than holistic.

Looking forward to your blog post on LC.

rukna said...

nice review.
I have not seen the movie, but this reivew makes me think...
what would i do if my partner becomes bedridden/paralyzed/handicapped?