Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Lady Chatterley unabridged

SUMMARY: See it, but be patient. "Lady Chatterley" offers nearly three hours of sex, class and foliage.

"Lady Chatterley" has been adapted from a draft of the D.H. Lawrence novel that became the notorious "Lady Chatterley's Lover." On screen, this edition of "Lady Chatterley" doesn't skimp on sex or nudity, but instead of overwhelming us with raw passion, the movie surrounds us with the sounds of nature -- from babbling brooks to cooing birds to the crunch of leaves underfoot.

At times, the narrative advances so slowly, you may wonder whether you're able to hear grass grow. That's the gamble director Pascale Ferran takes: By setting the movie in the bosom of the natural world, she creates an unobtrusive naturalism that steers the material away from melodrama and convention.

This being an adaptation of Lawrence, you already know that sex isn't just hanky panky; it's a gateway to realization, and the story focuses on two characters who badly need to break out of their respective molds: an English wife and the gamekeeper with whom she has a long-standing affair.

Set just after World War I, "Lady Chatterley" fills the screen with sex, class and fallen leaves, not necessarily in that order. Still, the movie poses an interesting enough question: Can two lovers rise above their stations to find transcendent bliss and simultaneous orgasm? Intriguing? Yes, but don't expect a quick answer. The movie lasts for a patience-taxing two hours and 48 minutes, and it seems to relish every step that Lady Chatterley takes on the walk through the forest that separates her grand home from the wooden hut where she and the gamekeeper get it on with increasing regularity.

Ferran begins with a painstaking look at the situation. Lady Chatterley (Marina Hands) languishes in isolation on her estate. Her husband, a pinch-faced man played by Hippolyte Giardot, was wounded during the war. He has lost use of his legs and presumably another important appendage. Husband and wife sleep in separate bedrooms, and it's clear from the outset that Lady Chatterley yearns for something to happen, perhaps anything.

When she sees the gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch)washing in a basin outside his cabin, her upper-class Novocain begins to wear off. She's jolted alive by the sight of his exposed torso. To understand "Lady Chatterley," you need look no further than the radically different bodies of its principal actors. Coullo'ch has the kind of lumpen physique that makes it seem as if he were created in a compactor; by contrast, Hands seems reedy and elegant. The two become a very odd couple. Imagining them charting a future together is a bit like trying to picture an exquisite ring being slipped over a bumpy knuckle.

It takes most of the movie for the gamekeeper and Lady Chatterley to have a real conversation, just as it takes them forever to make love without their clothes. I suppose that's the point, to allow us to feel our way along the path charted by characters who are discovering themselves as creatures in nature. To assure us that they have arrived at a better place than the one at which they started, Ferran waits until near the end to show the naked lovers romping outdoors during a sun shower. Sopping wet and mud splattered, they finally are at home in the world.

If you're caught looking at your watch during this moment of uninhibited splendor, don't fret. You probably won't be alone. Ferran's onto something here, but she would have done well to let go of it sooner.

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