About half a century has passed since prurient adolescents poured over copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by flashlight under their bedcovers. So when French director Pascale Ferran encountered D.H. Lawrence’s second (and less famous) version of his scandalous 1928 novel, she didn’t know what to expect. “A film I’d been preparing for two years had just fallen through,” Ferran recalls. “Pretty much all I could do at the time was lie in bed and read. So I picked up this book and was completely haunted by it, astonished by its power and by my own intense desire to film the whole thing at once.
“Lawrence’s novel is so much better than the cliché that’s come down to us,” continues Ferran, who was in New York earlier this spring for the U.S. premiere of her lush adaptation, Lady Chatterley, at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s not really about eroticism, but rather about the author’s desire to be as close as possible to the intimate truth of a relationship between two people.”
Her film begins with the young Constance, Lady Chatterley (Marina Hands), leading a reclusive and lonely existence in the aftermath of World War I on the country estate of her husband, Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), an ex-officer whose war wounds have left him paralyzed from the waist down. One day, by accident, she spies her husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h), washing his naked torso outdoors.
The rest, I’m tempted to say, is history. But though the shock that sight provokes in Constance is sudden, the interior transformations at the heart of Ferran’s film are much longer in coming. Ferran’s vision of sexuality as both natural and central to an evolving relationship is something the director—best known for the sensitive ensemble work of her award-winning 1994 debut feature, Coming to Terms with the Dead—rarely finds in contemporary cinema. “Either the film suddenly changes registers, and it’s all about two people having sex, with a couple of shots in bed and some swelling background music, and it’s all so sublime,” she says, adding: “That’s a gross underestimation—it doesn’t address the true complexity of sex, which is so charged with emotions and thoughts, even when it’s going badly.” Or there’s the vision of sex found in the work of European auteurs like Catherine Breillat, Patrice Chereau, or Michael Haneke, in which, Ferran says, “sexuality is represented as something destructive, closer to an animal instinct. In that case, I might be more admiring of the mise-en-scéne, but I’m still not reminded of my own experience. In fact, it’s quite rare to see a film that explores the almost infantile joy of sex, its liberating qualities, and the way those moments can influence the relationship between two people. That’s what I tried to capture.”
Lady Chatterley is Ferran’s first film to focus intently on a central female character. But in the end, it is the taciturn gamekeeper’s discovery of his own “feminine” nature that surprises us most. Did Lawrence identify the lovers’ socially marginal utopia—unshackled by conventions of gender, class, or marriage—with artistic creation?
“One thing Lawrence says—with which I am in deep agreement—is that we can all be artists in the way we live our lives,” Ferran notes. Even the men who toil in Sir Clifford’s mines? “Well, they’re very alienated because of their social position,” she admits. “But a powerful amorous encounter, such as that between Constance and Parkin, can open up the possibility of inventing your own life. You just have to be sufficiently courageous and inventive, and not too disenchanted to envisage it.”