3½ stars (out of four)
D.H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover," a critical salvo in the sexual censorship battles of the 20th century, has inspired its share of cinematic adaptations, most notably a black-and-white version in 1955 from France, that nation so storied for its liberated bedroom.There have been other efforts, often prurient, and the name Lady Chatterley itself survives in conversation as a totem of naughty misbehavior.
But now comes what may be the most thoughtful and effective treatment of Lawrence's story to date. "Lady Chatterley," renamed, is also a French movie, though this time its director, Pascale Ferran, is a woman. She based her adaptation on a version of the story earlier than the one Lawrence published in 1928, and she brings an unmistakable woman's perspective that provides balance and deepens the themes. The result is not a movie of peekaboo titillation, but a studied, original portrait of sexuality and its role in human relationships.
It's nearly three hours long, but that's what allows Ferran to slowly unveil her perspective with cautious, determined, unrelenting realism. Even her camera style is spare and rudimentary, a straightforward, Spartan approach that sometimes, in its ponderous images of the woodsy Chatterley estate, recalls an amateur travelogue from the 1950s. Or, when it focuses on insignificant objects or details, it sports a minimalism evoking French master Robert Bresson.
Ferran takes this deceptively ordinary, unadorned, intentionally un-flashy approach in her casting too. Marina Hands, who plays the noble woman, Constance, whose husband was paralyzed in what we call World War I, and Jean-Louis Coulloc'h, the gameskeeper who catches her fancy, are decidedly plain. Hands, however, exudes a fragile warmth and tenderness, while Coulloc'h is masterful as a kind of alienated, human ape who slowly reveals sensitivity and bedrock manliness.
Because her performers are anything but sexy centerfolds, Ferran is free to craft a methodical study of the couple's evolving intimacy. Their sexual encounters, too many to count, begin with almost clinical coupling in full clothing and evolve to bold shots of nudity Ferran uses to humanize them and thrust us inside their physical bond. This is a far cry from the now mechanical, soft-porn bedroom shots omnipresent in films since the '60s -- the nudity here is pastoral and stark, rarely sensual. There's one striking sequence where the couple delight in each other's genitalia with almost childlike glee.
"Lady Chatterley," which played in an even longer version on French television and won five Cesar Awards (the French Oscar), explores Lawrence's conflicting class consciousness and charts how pedestrian sex blossoms into profound love. Nature, too, floods the movie in almost every frame, wide shots of vernal woods, colorful flowers, winter snows and downpours of rain. We are both human and beast. "Lady Chatterley" is ponderous, steady, gradually compelling and hypnotic, a film that enhances Lawrence's novel instead of exploiting it.
Directed by Pascale Ferran; screenplay by Ferran and Roger Bohbot; photographed by Julien Hirsc; edited by Mathilde Muyard and Yann Dedet; music by Beatrice Thiriet; produced by Gilles Sandoz. A Kino International release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 2:48. No MPAA rating (nudity and adult situations).
Lady Chatterley -- Marina Hands
Oliver -- Jean-Louis Coulloc'h
Sir Clifford -- Hippolyte Girardot
Mrs. Bolton -- Helene AlexandridisCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times