||Anybody going to see “Lady Chatterley” for prurience’s sake is likely to be as disappointed by Pascale Ferran’s film as drooling readers were fifty years ago when they scooped up copies of Nabokov’s “Lolita” in a mistaken search for pornography. The final version of D.H. Lawrence’s famous novel might have made waves—and brought legal challenges—for its explicit sexuality and tough language, but Ferran has opted to base her adaptation on the author’s more discreet second draft. So while there are some steamy scenes of the lovers in the heat of passion and others of them gamboling about the forest in the nude, they’re hardly frequent enough to make this a film that would appeal to the baser instincts, especially since they’re shot so artily that viewers interested in something really titillating will probably find them disappointing.
But those looking for a truly powerful retelling of Lawrence’s tale about a repressed English noblewoman with a paralyzed husband and the gamekeeper she takes up with won’t be terribly impressed by “Lady Chatterley” either—though for quite different reasons. For one thing, it’s lethargic. Running for nearly three hours, and shot—quite frankly—without much visual distinction, it lumbers rather than soars, feeling dry and desiccated despite all the greenery and pink skin on display. The glacial pace is obviously meant to emphasize the halting character of the initial attraction between Lady Chatterley (Marina Hands) and Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h), the gradual deepening of their involvement, and the oblique denouement, and the repeated insert of local foliage designed to reflect the flowering of the relationship in terms of the blossoming of the natural world in which it’s set. But the plodding way in which the human drama is presented saps all visceral energy from it. Even those shots of the lovers scampering about naked in the rain carry no frisson of real sexual energy.
Nor does the cast bring the material to life. Hands gets Lady Chatterley’s reserve down, but never really engages us emotionally, and though Coulloc’h is appropriately gruff, he doesn’t either. (At least he’s not an extra-handsome leading-man type, but that alone isn’t enough.) Hippolyte Girardot doesn’t make much of the lady’s wounded husband, either.
What really dooms “Lady Chatterley,” though, is the fact that the language, both verbal and cinematic, is wrong. Lawrence’s story is a quintessentially British one in its tone and its basis in class consciousness, and seeing it played out in a setting that looks continental and sounds so Gallic undermines it to no end. (When the lovers are doing their dance in the woods, the right phrase isn’t “in the nude” but “au naturel,” and that’s the essence of the problem.) In this context transposing the story to pre-revolutionary France might have made some sense; just playing it out in a post-World War I “England” that’s all too obviously France doesn’t work.
All important novels—in the case of this one, I’d avoid the adjective “great”—aren’t susceptible to cinematic adaptation. Perhaps it’s time to admit that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is one that isn’t, at least not in French hands.