The Emasculation of Lady Chatterley's Lover

By Scott, James F | Literature/Film Quarterly, Winter 1973 | Go to article overview
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The Emasculation of Lady Chatterley's Lover

Scott, James F, Literature/Film Quarterly

Midway through the third reel of L'Amant de Lady Chatterley 1 one of the characters says, "this sounds just like a French play." And so it does, unfortunately, which is one reason why the film version of Lady Chatterley's Lover falls far short of being successfully cinematic. In terms of form the film is too stagey; thematically, it is too French. It even manages to seem a little bit prissy and prudish, adding a further affront to the intentions of Lawrence's novel.

Indifferently directed by Marc Allégret, the film was developed from a stage play by Gaston Bonheur and Philippe de Rothchild. In this intermediate version it apparently acquired much of its Gallic flavor. But Allégret completed the transformation of culture and décor, turning pubs into bistros, beer into wine, country houses into châteaux. With the world of the English Midlands so unaccountably Frenchified, L'Amant de Lady Chatterley seems more like a remake of Renoir's La Règle du Jeu than an adaptation of Lawrence's novel. Similarly, the lighting, camera work, and editing style is reminiscent of the 1930's, conforming to the "studio look" of that era yet rarely refining or extending those conventions which now strike us as visual cliches. Though the film has a few good photographic touches and is also redeemed by the performance of Danielle Darrieux, it suffers from the attempt to update and universalize the import of Lady Chatterley's Lover without imaginatively rethinking the issues with which Lawrence was concerned. In treating his material, Allégret missed the opportunity to convert a powerful but defective novel into a motion picture that could lay claim to its own artistic integrity. Lacking the support of a firm-minded director, social criticism collapsed into soap opera.

There is no reason to berate Allégret for infidelity to Lady Chatterley's Lover. It is doubtful whether one medium can workably imitate another; and, even if such copy work were possible, it would be an inappropriate artistic ambition. John Osborne and Tony Richardson succeeded in adapting Tom Jones to the screen, not by slavishly bowing before Fielding's precedents but by inventing a wide range of cinematic analogies to express the style and tone of the original novel. Nor need the film director be half so faithful as Osborne and Richardson were to Fielding. By the time V.I. Pudovkin had finished reshaping Gorki's Mother, the film and the novel had little in common besides their title. Yet few have found fault with Pudovkin's film. By the same token, we all remember those scrupulously careful adaptations of O'Neill plays which directors Dudley Nichols (Mourning Becomes Electra) and Clarence Brown (Anna Christie) spun out in the thirties and forties. Every word and gesture is preserved, with utterly disastrous results. No, the problem with L'Amant de Lady Chatterley is not mere infidelity.

Some alteration of Lady Chatterley's Lover would have been desirable, perhaps inevitable. The novel is damaged by clumsy rhetoric and the insistent special pleading of Lawrence's editorial voice, particularly evident when Lawrence wishes to invest sexual connections with cosmic significance. Such connections are the core of Lawrence's art, but here they are presented less than artfully. The symbolic linking of sun and sperm, so thoroughly assimilated into 77?e Plumed Serpent, seems forced in Lady Chatterley's Lover, requiring the author's constant urging. So does the theme of the woman's natural subjection to the man, portrayed almost convincingly in The Rainbow and Women in Love but sustained in Lady Chatterley's Lover only by continuous carping. Witness a fairly typical love scene between Connie and Mellors:

[Mellors] dropped his shirt and stood still, looking towards her. The sun through the low window sent in a beam that lit up his thighs and slim belly, and the erect phallus rising dark and hot looking from the little cloud of vivid gold-red hair. She[Connie]was startled and afraid.

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