Lady Chatterley

(Pascale Ferran, France/Belgium, 2006)


Despite never-ending concern about how faithful screen adaptations of beloved classic novels need to be, most of the best films derived from books display very little such respect. Directors including Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Godard frequently took their inspiration from the smallest literary fragment – a title, a line, a character, a mood – and happily junked the rest. And that was the case whether they were dealing with “pulp” genre fiction, or the classics.


Pascale Ferran had an inspired adaptation idea for her rendition of Lady Chatterley. She uses not the finished version of D.H. Lawrence’s novel of an upstairs/downstairs liaison, but an earlier, less formed draft. Ferran wished to avoid the heavy philosophical, moral and political discourse of the final work; what drew her to Lawrence’s draft was its more immediate, livelier sense of erotic intimacy. By enhancing this element, she has made an odd, beguiling, rather sexy film.


In the parlance of contemporary Hollywood, Lawrence was not an especially plot-driven guy. In the almighty struggle between poetic structures, high-flown ideas and story elements, it was usually the story that came out worst. Ferran is eager to further erase the narrative intrigue; some viewers will doubtless spend the luxurious two hours and 37 minutes of the film anticipating a melodrama that never eventuates.


Lady Chatterley needs its length. Ferran begins sparingly, only gradually introducing notes of lyricism. The characters are complex. Marina Hands as the Lady takes us right into the intricacies of inner and outer erotic life: the wide-eyed curiosity, the slowly dawning pleasure, the needs and doubts. Jean-Louis Culloc’h as Parkin is far from the typical screen depiction of the gatekeeper as a magnificent, working-class animal (see Ken Russell’s woeful Lady Chatterley [1993]); his solid frame and taciturn manner only increase his air of vulnerability. And Hippolyte Giradot gives depth, even sympathy, to the seemingly unlovely role of the aristocratic and patriarchal Clifford Chatterley.


Ferran is a director with a scant but intriguing career. For Little Arrangements with Death (1994), she was both praised and damned as representative of a Young French Cinema in that decade. She was 34 then; apart from a modest telemovie, this is her only feature in the intervening 12 years (with Bird People following in 2014). Stylistically, her greatest debt is to François Truffaut: just as Two English Girls (1971) began with pages of Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel covered with the director’s handwritten annotations, Ferran inserts, mid-film, a deliberately disconcerting voice-over narration of readings from Lawrence’s prose. In both cases, the process of adaptation is not smoothed over, but insisted upon.


This transformation of Lawrence’s world – in which English characters in a very English milieu talk French – will strike some viewers as unreal. But haven’t American films been performing this kind of takeover of foreign languages, cultures and stories forever? Ferran purifies Lawrence’s novel for her own artistic purposes, and succeeds in conjuring a sensual atmosphere that never gives way to real-world fatalism.

© Adrian Martin September 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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