The title character discovers the English countryside is good for more than brisk walks in “Lady Chatterley,” a lengthy but consistently involving take on the second (of three) versions of D.H. Lawrence’s once-scandalous novel. Vividly anchored in the rural 1920s, and frankly sensual but never vulgar, this cinematic rendering of nascent euphoria boasts touching, unfussy lead perfs. Most local crix have showered Pascale Ferran with praise for her the sure directorial hand in only her third feature since the innovative “Coming to Terms With the Dead” won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1993.
Pic perfectly incorporates both male and female full-frontal nudity, but hasn’t so much as a hint of the nasty language that made the final version of the novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” the subject of a landmark obscenity trial in London as late as 1960. (Ban in the U.S. had been overturned the previous year.)
Novel’s second version, in which the gamekeeper is called Oliver Parkin rather than Oliver Mellors, is much more about tenderness and compassion than brute sex and four-letter words.
Pleasant, well-born Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) is married to older Sir Clifford Chatterley (Hippolyte Girardot), a WWI vet paralyzed from the waist down. Wealthy from coal mines whose tired, dust-blackened workers are sometimes seen, the Chatterleys live on a vast wooded estate tended by servants.
One resplendent autumn day, Constance hikes out to tell the gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h), that the cook will require two pheasants. Glimpsing Parkin nude to the waist rinsing his powerful torso, she’s so shaken she has to sit down.
Parkin is as robust and natural as Constance’s husband is frail and formal. In case she needs to rest on her long walks, she requests a key to the glorified shack where Parkin keeps tools and raises hens.
Increment by increment, and with very few words, class distinctions give way to earthy desire. The townswomen are soon commenting on how healthy Constance looks; but she finds leading remarks a small price to pay for a new landscape of sexual pleasure, evolving from frank give and take.
Pic shows a new couple “grow,” as surely as the property’s abundant vegetation. A woman in her 20s and a man in his 40s feel good about feeling good, and perhaps there will be no tragic comeuppance.
In its recounting of matter-of-fact passion replete with joys and hesitations, pic is composed of sometimes abrupt vignettes, evolving across the seasons. Scene-setting is accomplished either with intertitles, as in a silent film, or via voice-over by housekeeper Mrs. Bolton (Helene Alexandridis).
Hands (“On the Tips of Her Fingers”) has already proven her considerable acting chops but Coulloc’h — who looks a bit like Oliver Stone with a sleeker nose — is quietly riveting. Girardot is well cast as a gentleman who wears his privilege and his infirmity with an air of inevitability. His Sir Clifford is clear-headed about the prospect of Constance producing an heir with a more able-bodied man — although a gamekeeper built like a Greek wrestler is not what he has in mind.
Lensing is a bit on the soft side, sometimes glowing like colorized newsreels and sometimes lit a bit too expediently, as if for TV. (A two-part TV version was also shot for cultural web Arte.) Be it melancholy or ethereal, score is never overdone.
Although all dialogue is in French, the viewer buys the characters as Brits. Previous Gallic adaptations include a 1955 version by Marc Allegret starring Danielle Darrieux and a 1981 stab by Just Jaeckin starring Sylvia Kristel.