Wedding dim-witted adaptation with half-hearted sexploitation, the pathetic film version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" now at area theaters can scarcely fail to alienate its only potential audiences.
On one hand, admirers of D.H. Lawrence are unlikely to appreciate a mangled, incoherent condensation of a major novel. On the other, admirers of the languorous mannequin Sylvia Kristel, who became an international sex star of an absurdly passive, literally laid-back sort in the "Emmanuelle" series, will find nothing to stir fresh salacious interest in her occasional stripteases and orgasmic grimaces.
Kristel continues to excel at one thing: the art of reclining. When stretched out in that head-dangling posture that so becomes her, she offers as much elegantly arched neck to the camera as Garbo once did. Apart from this supine specialty, Kristel's skills remain imperceptible. Constant viewers may observe a curious alteration in her figure -- she's acquired a slight pot. While not unappealing in its all too human way, this enhanced contour introduces a certain note of confusion into the story of Lady Chatterley's sexual awakening, namely the suggestion that Constance might be pregnant before being drawn into her great love affair with the brooding, rugged-intellectual gamekeeper Mellors, whose child she proudly carries as the novel ends.
Of course, a movie version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" entrusted to the Dutch star and French director of "Emmanuelle" never promised to be anything but a travesty of unknown magnitude. Would anyone with the slightest respect for Lawrence's work package it as a nominally British production reuniting Sylvia Kristel and Just Jaeckin? The principal culprits behind this predictable mutilation and vulgarization of Lawrence's book would appear to be the executive producers, the Israeli schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Considering the shabby treatment, they must have regarded "Lady Chatterley's Lover" as contemptible literary merchandise.
Moviegoers who know the book would certainly make allowances for the difficulties it creates for adapters. There are key episodes that probably can't be filmed effectively, not so much because they depict the carnal nature of a love affair but because they describe surging, mysterious, transcendent levels of feeling evoked by an overpowering physical passion that seem to defy pictorial representation. They're elusive enough when Lawrence presumes to capture them in words.
In a similar respect, one doesn't expect a film version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" to reproduce the discursive, philosophical aspects of Lawrence's writing. The loftier purposes of the novel would be evoked readily enough by a movie that compressed the plot and cast the roles effectively.
The movie demonstrates hopelessly clumsy tendencies from the outset, when a prologue depicting the courtship of Constance and Clifford, their marriage and the war injury that leaves Clifford permanently paralyzed from the waist down is inserted in the middle of the opening credits. What a difference to turn from this jittery, confusing presentation to the incisive eloquence of Lawrence's opening sentence: "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically." Now that's a start that makes you sit up and take notice. While it may not be possible to express the same thought in so many introductory images, there's no reason why a movie version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" needs to start off by falling apart.