Aug 6, 2007


What is there about Lady Chatterley's Lover that keeps attracting film-makers? The obvious answers won't do: many other novels are suffused with sex and have spicy reputations. For obvious cinematic reasons, it can't be the quality of Lawrence's prose. Yet there have been sixteen films of Lawrence's book, for large and small screens, and some of them come from countries other than Britain--France, Italy, Japan, the Czech Republic.

And now there is another from France, called simply Lady Chatterley. The writer-director, Pascale Ferran, has (with two collaborators) adapted her screenplay from the second of Lawrence's three versions of his book. (Understandably, Ferran has not used that second version's title, John Thomas and Lady Jane--not because of its seeming blandness, but because John Thomas was, and still is, a British nickname for the penis.)

Ferran knew exactly why she wanted to do her film, as she makes sensually clear. Evidently she found more resources for her view in version two. There are elements in her picture that are not in version three, which is the novel as we know it. I note only that here the gamekeeper is called Parkin, not Mellors; and, unlike Mellors, Parkin was never a British officer in India. (In both versions, however, he comes from a coal-mining family.) Ferran wanted to deal with passion. In her film sex itself is not the point: instead, it is the best way in which passion is expressed. There are no mere boudoir gymnastics here--sex is the manifestation of a greater force. Jean-François Revel said that passion consists of seeing in the finite an infinity that doesn't exist. In this film the lovers are seeking the impossible through the possible. The knowledge of that impossibility makes the scenes all the more powerful. This is the core of Lawrence's novel, and Ferran has understood it.


Lady Constance Chatterley, as we all know, is married to Sir Clifford, who was badly wounded in World War I and is now wheelchair-bound and impotent. They live on his grand estate. He still manages the coal mine that he owns. He still loves his wife, and she is devoted to him, but the marriage is obviously incomplete. Then Clifford engages a new gamekeeper, Parkin.

Ferran has treated Connie's first glimpse of Parkin movingly. The lady is walking in the woods near Parkin's hut, and suddenly, coming around a corner, she sees him from behind, naked to the waist, washing himself. He doesn't know that she is there. Connie's response is hushed but intense. She quickly retreats around a corner of the hut, bewildered by the flood of feeling yet paradoxically sure of what has happened in her. The moment is exquisite.

Naturally, Connie finds reasons subsequently to visit Parkin. He knows why; she knows he knows; yet there is no flirting or flurry. The fire simmers in her, reticent and proper though she is, and her very presence tells this knowledgeable man what is possible. In time it happens.

Despite the plot differences from the third version, basically the sexual encounters between the lovers are the reasons for the film, as they are for the novel. Ferran has cast the two roles wonderfully. Marina Hands has the kind of beauty that makes a viewer eager to know her, to have that person in one's life. Parkin was a bit easier to cast; still, Jean-Louis Coulloc'h is more than a run-of-the-mill strong, silent man. He seems to live in a garment of experience, which he uses to protect himself as well as to advance. Ferran has worked with these actors to make their encounters both sweeping and faintly frightening. Yet the famous scene in which each decorates the other's nude body with flowers is done with a sense of humor as well as bliss.

One element in Lawrence's story is, for me, still troublesome--the fact that he made Clifford a non-sexual husband. It seems an egregious excuse for Connie's love affair, a justification. The author who wrote so fearlessly on so many subjects certainly knew that a married person, sexually active in that marriage, might still have an affair, might still feel passion for another person. Clifford's impotence has always seemed to me Lawrence's uncharacteristic bow to middle-class morality.

Hippolyte Girardot gives all the flavor possible to Clifford. François-Renaud Labarthe's designs of interiors are--pleasantly--what we expect, and Julien Hirsch's camera understands their textures. Hirsch also deals well with the grounds and woods of the estate, the vitality of nature that surrounds these two people wrapped in passion.

After Saint Joan has been burned at the stake in Bernard Shaw's play about her, the executioner goes to report to the Earl of Warwick. The earl has not expected him and says, "Well, fellow: who are you?" The dignified response: "I am not addressed as fellow, my lord. I am the Master Executioner of Rouen: it is a highly skilled mystery." A comparable professional pride runs through Pierrepoint--The Last Hangman, a British film that is based on facts.

Albert Pierrepoint was appointed to his post in 1934, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle; he resigned in 1956. (The title of the film is catchy but inaccurate: hangings continued in Britain until 1964.) This account of his life, tautly directed by Adrian Shergold and photographed in masterly film-noir style by Danny Cohen, is essentially the account of a conflict--between the only source of pride available to Pierrepoint and the harsh details of what he is doing. The wonder is that he was able to execute 608 people and (according to the film) gave up only after being forced to deal with a friend.

The whole strange project is sustained largely through the performance of Pierrepoint by Timothy Spall (of Topsy-Turvy and Secrets and Lies). Part of Spall's talent is in convincing us very quickly, after our first glimpse of his fleshy, banal face, that there is an interesting man behind it. Juliet Steven- son, splendid as always, plays Pierrepoint's barmaid wife with no trace of character-slumming. Known, among other reasons, for her performances in Shakespeare, Stevenson makes this barmaid a complete woman, not an instance of an actor's versatility.

Shergold renders the atmosphere of the executions chillingly enough yet without exploiting the gruesome. A chief effect of these scenes is to remind us that Pierrepoint's profession actually exists, though the lethal means differ. Even in those countries where capital punishment has been abolished, there is always agitation for its return. And there are always men who will do the job. More specifically, this film digs into the crevices of a man who, for most of his life, can find ways to smooth over the days between executions. (He does, indeed, have some ordinary work between his special assignments.)

In his earlier days Shergold worked with Mike Leigh and has learned much from him. The wonder is that Leigh, a director always interested in the social imbalances that society accepts, did not make this film himself years ago. But Shergold has done the job.

Some good news brings us bad news. The good news is that the eighteenth Human Rights Watch International Film Festival has arrived, and the bad news, unsurprisingly, is that those rights still need watching. This edition of the festival presents twenty-four films from around the world who are doing this work with anger and with love.

I have seen three of this year's films. Mon Colonel, a French picture directed by Laurent Herbiet, is the reverse of Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. Set mainly in Algeria in the 1950s, this new film views the Algerian struggle against French occupation from the French point of view. It is not merely that French rights must be safeguarded: the presence of France in Algeria is seen as justified and in the long run beneficial. (Costa-Gavras, wizard of political films, collaborated on the screenplay, which we might suspect even if we didn't know it.) The film begins in the home of a retired colonel, who had been a commander in Algeria. An intruder shoots him. The story then explains why it was done and who did it. Herbiet, who must know Pontecorvo's work, has deftly held up a mirror to it.

Enemies of Happiness, co-directed by Eva Mulvad (of Denmark) and Anja Al-Erhayem, is a documentary about an Afghan woman. Malalai Joya ran for parliament in her country's first election in more than thirty years. Joya met all the opposition that she foresaw, and inevitably she received death threats while she was daring to run. She was elected in 2005. Her career is presented as a small-scale epic of large-scale courage.

An American director, Steven Okazaki, made White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (It will be broadcast on HBO on August 6, the sixty-second anniversary of Hiroshima.) This documentary, says Okazaki, "is not about the rights or wrongs of the decision to drop the bombs.... It is about fourteen people who looked up and saw a white flash." These fourteen, now of course elderly, quietly remind us of matters we usually need to forget: that, in a war, there are human beings on both sides. (The theme, too, of Clint Eastwood's two films about Iwo Jima.) The film also includes interviews with four Americans who were involved in the bombings and who in differing ways have lived with that knowledge.

This entire festival played in New York recently for two weeks, and a selection of twelve to fourteen films will be shown later this year in some forty cities. These programs will be available on DVD in the fall. For more information, consult


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