DALE PECK ON THE MOVIES: Lady Chatterley

Article excerpt

Few figures in 20th-century literature are as controversial as D.H. Lawrence or as hard to pin down. A working-class boy, he became the darling of influential critic and novelist Ford Madox Ford at the tender age of 23, but by the time he was 35 his reputation had become so tarnished that he had to pen a textbook under a pseudonym. A home wrecker, he stole his wife of 16 years from her first husband (who was also one of his professors) but had at least one affair himself-with a man. During World War I the Germans thought the pacifist Lawrence was a spy for England, and England thought he was a spy for Germany. His fusion of Christian mysticism with African and Native American tribal religions is seen as enlightened metaphysics by some and intellectual colonialism by others. Even readers who detest his bombastic prose remember that he rescued Maty-Dick from obscurity, whereas fans of the previously uncharted physical intimacy depicted in his work can't live down the fact that he also introduced the phrase "ithyphallic authority" into English literature.

Lawrence's books, in other words, are a bit like dial-up Internet porn: You spend so long waiting for the dirty stuff that by the time it shows up you've lost interest-but then the image snaps into focus, and you remember what you were looking for in the first place. Though he lacked Forster's subtlety, WoolPs rhythms, and Hemingway's narrative vistas, he made up for these limitations by seeing through his peers' Edwardian prudery to the emotional realms at which they barely managed to hint. He wrote about real lust and real anger and real pain in ways no one had before, and if any number of later writers exceeded his accomplishments-on an aesthetic level, if not the philosophical-their work is only possible because of his. His literary reputation rests primarily on the novels The Rainbow and Women in Love as well as various short stories, travel writing, critical essays, and poetry; in the popular arena he is best known for his last novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. First printed (privately) in Italy in 1928 but not published in England and the United States until around 1960 (after successfully surviving obscenity trials in both countries), the novel became one of the primer texts of the sexual revolution. Less well known is the fact that Lawrence wrote three versions of the book, and it is the second of these (published posthumously as John Thomas and Lady Jane) that French director Pascale Ferran has adapted into her intelligent, faithful, and touching film Lady Chatterley, which won the 2006 Best Picture César (the French equivalent of the Academy Award) as well as a Best Actress award for Marina Hands, for her depiction of the sexual awakening of a repressed young Englishwoman.

Lawrence's text ran to nearly 400 pages, and Ferran's film takes nearly three hours to unfold; on the surface it's hard to see why. The well-known setup is almost devoid of plot: Trapped in a joyless-and, more to the point, sexless-marriage to an aristocrat paralyzed in the war, Constance Chatterley finds love and sexual fulfillment with Oliver Parkin, the working-class gamekeeper on her husband's estate. The relationship between the two lovers is as barren of words as it is of plot. …