'Lady Chatterley': A Natural Passion

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

When it was finally published in Britain almost 50 years ago, D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover" prompted international outrage for its sexually explicit language, tacit acceptance of adultery and -- horrors! -- portrayal of an affair between people of different social stations.

Now, as we sit to watch "Lady Chatterley," a French screen adaptation of the book, we can see the controversy for its moral quaintness, particularly in this era of foulmouthed rap and Paris Hilton peek-a-boo videos. But more significantly, we can -- without the distraction of antique indignation -- appreciate Lawrence's real purposes for writing the story: to elicit a new honesty about sex within society and to emphasize its importance in the equation of human happiness.

Pascale Ferran's movie shows us the sensual dawning of Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands), whose husband, industrialist Lord Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), is wheelchair-bound and impotent following his wounding on World War I battlefields. Her awakening begins in her husband's wooded estate when she catches a glimpse of the gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), washing his back. Constance is so taken with Parkin's body -- a proud frame hardened from a lifetime of labor -- that only physical consummation will satisfy her passion. And Parkin, who has unmet needs of his own, is immediately responsive.

To those for whom sex has become a social commodity -- something to be shared casually among friends -- the passion between Constance and Parkin may not register as more significant than physical release. But Ferran refuses to render their lovemaking into banality. She focuses mostly on the faces of the lovers. They are undergoing something deeper than sexual fulfillment. They are finding themselves in a mutual zone of trust, protected -- temporarily, at least -- from the human world outside. And their newfound sensuality, in keeping with Lawrence's themes, is reflected in the lush nature that surrounds them.

As their affair builds -- she steals to his isolated cabin almost every day -- "Lady Chatterley" becomes an almost nonverbal opera of two bodies, in which the music is their discovery of one another. And the audience becomes keenly attuned to the slightest sounds between Constance and Parkin, the scrape of skin against skin, the breath of both partners and the rustle of cumbersome post-Victorian clothing.

"Lady Chatterley," a winner of five French C├ęsar Awards, also makes us deeply aware of the morally claustrophobic world in which the lovers live. Whether it's the weary men who toil in her husband's mines, Constance's subservient position as Clifford's wife or the class division between her and Parkin, we get a palpable sense of the morally constricted world around them. And suddenly, their feverish loosening of garters, buttons and other sartorial hindrances is not only profoundly erotic but also quietly revolutionary.

Lady Chatterley (168 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated but contains nudity, sexual scenes and profanity.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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