What distinguishes this sixth screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's infamous tale of Lady Chatterley's affair with the gamekeeper on her English country estate is that French director Pascale Ferran maintains the author's construct but doesn't burden her film with a suffocating layer of shame. There's a Gallic looseness, a nonjudgmental quality that makes the characters come vibrantly alive, and unlocks the story from the novel's reputation as highbrow porn.
It's important to note that Ferran (Coming to Terms with the Dead) and her co-screenwriters Roger Bohbot and Pierre Trividic adapted the second version of Lawrence's last novel, known as John Thomas and Lady Jane. These weren't different drafts, but three distinct novels, each with a different emphasis sharing the same characters and basic plotline. But Mellors, the gamekeeper of the final version, Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), is quite different from the withdrawn Oliver Parkin, who finds solace in his solitude.
When Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) accidentally comes upon Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h) as he's washing up, there's something about his broad, muscular back that completely unnerves her. Ferran doesn't film this as a Harlequin moment, but a shock of recognition, a reminder of the corporeal world. As she begins regularly visiting the hut where Parkin breeds birds, and basks in its isolation, she moves from Lady Chatterley to Connie, and finds equanimity with this taciturn man of the woods. (The French title is Lady Chatterley et l'homme des bois.)
Ferran has envisioned a kind of pastoral romance, with Connie awakening to the natural world as she embraces the lover who's so immersed in it. As they grow more comfortable with each other despite their increasing sexual freedom, there's always a moment of hesitancy in their encounters, an acknowledgment of class barriers they become almost proto-hippies, at one point decorating each other's bodies with wildflowers.
It's a far cry from her well-ordered home life at Wragby Hall, where her wheelchair-bound husband, Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), rules the roost. This Lady Chatterley is as much about malaise as passion, obligation as love, and Ferran doesn't designate any villains. Clifford is comfortable as an aristocrat, the master who easily makes decisions for his miners as if they were his children, not his employees, but he's also a wounded World War I veteran who lost some of his invincibility along with the use of his legs.
While this adaptation is a less tortured explanation of what binds Lady Chatterley to Parkin, there's also a weird disconnect in hearing the French actors regularly refer to themselves as English. And Ferran is so reverential to her source material that she inserts title cards and voiceover narration to put actions into context, instead of relying on the reverie of mutual discovery.
Cinematographer Julien Hirsch received a César Award (one of five won) for his work capturing the terrain in such a naturalistic, illuminating light. Formally beautiful, yet remarkably unfussy, Lady Chatterley is a clear-eyed vision of earthy sensuality, a Garden of Eden with no snake in sight.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Sept. 14-15, and at 3 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].