Nature also asserts its power in Lady Chatterley, a parable of therapeutic lust. But in Pascale Ferran’s gently rapturous film, the jungle is within the human heart, or at least under the characters’ very proper attire. Although the movie is in French, it’s based on D.H. Lawrence’s novel and set in Lawrence’s England, where the woods are painstakingly managed: Even the gamekeeper wears a tie to work, and liberation is symbolized by the growing willingness of the two lovers to disrobe before sex. What starts as furtive becomes nearly Edenic, complete with frolicking in a downpour, before this nearly three-hour idyll ends.
If that seems overly schematic, Lady Chatterley is a lot less contrived and didactic than Lawrence’s once-scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But then Ferran, who scripted with Roger Bohbot and Pierre Trividic, based her adaptation on one of the book’s earlier versions, now known as John Thomas and Lady Jane (after the characters’ pet names for each others’ genitals). Reportedly, that draft goes easier on the working-class resentment that makes the final version of the novel such a dismal slog. Even at his least preachy, however, Lawrence never wrote anything as cheerful as this film.
Perran does retain the basics of Lawrence’s scenario: In 1921, Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) lives a quiet, sexually unfulfilled life at Wragby, the estate of her husband, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), who was paralyzed from the waist down in the Great War. She wanders the grounds like a young girl, picking flowers and observing squirrels and birds. Connie complains of being “listless” and is warned by the family doctor that she will be vulnerable to cancer if she doesn’t become more “vital.” As it happens, she’s already had a vision of vitality: the property’s gamekeeper, Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h), with his shirt off. Connie begins spending much of her time at the hut where Parkin breeds pheasants, and soon he’s pulled her inside for a quick tumble. The sex is hurried and—at least for her—not altogether satisfying, but Connie and Oliver are on their way to a transformation.
As the single encounter blossoms into a relationship, if not quite happily-ever-after, Connie and Oliver become more comfortable together. Although the lovemaking scenes are not explicit, they do progress from fully clothed to unapologetically naked. Unlike Hollywood filmmakers, who only strip down the perfectly aerobicized (and Will Ferrell), Ferran has chosen actors who are unidealized: Coulloc’h is fleshy, battered, and middle-aged, and Hinds, while young and pretty, is no streamlined Baywatch babe. With their bodies alone, the performers defuse Lawrence’s insistence on treating his characters as exemplars of their class. The director even shows some sympathy for Clifford, who’s frequently peevish but intent on regaining as much mobility as possible—and tentatively accepting of the idea that Connie might look elsewhere to father an heir to Wragby. (Perran does keep Clifford’s role as the owner of a coal mine, which automatically identifies him as villain to Lawrence, whose father was a miner.)
Like many movies that break the two-hour barrier, Lady Chatterley takes a while to establish its rhythm. Yet once it does, the film is neither rushed nor sluggish. Its tempo feels, well, natural, which is the key to Ferran’s accomplishment. The director reveals her outlook in a sequence in which Connie and Oliver adorn each other’s bodies (including John Thomas and Lady Jane) with wildflowers. For Lawrence, nature was an angry rebuke to uptight British society. In Lady Chatterley, trees and flowers and bodies and sex are simply things that exist, to be accepted, enjoyed, and not excessively strained for symbolism.