The raciest thing I ever saw my mother do was read a brown-paper-covered Penguin edition of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover on the London Underground. She didn't fool all the other passengers carrying similarly disguised copies, and though I was only 12 years old in that fall of 1960 — a far cry from being 12 now when it comes to sexual precocity — she didn't fool me. At school the air already hung heavy with gamekeeper jokes, and the book, banned since its first publication in 1928, had just survived a splashy obscenity trial in which E.M. Forster and other luminaries of Eng. Lit. testified to the novel's artistic merits despite multiple deployments of the word "fuck" and frank descriptions of extramarital sex between an unfulfilled milady and a lowly groundsman on her country estate.
In fact, as I discovered after fishing the book from Mum's bedside drawer while she was at work, Lady Chatterley's Lover is way more talk than action. It wasn't all that saucy then, and it certainly isn't now. Which may be why Pascale Ferran has based her magnificent Lady Chatterley on an earlier version of Lawrence's novel, the one with the promisingly bawdy English-language title of John Thomas and Lady Jane, a reference to the well-exercised genitals of the secret lovers. Or maybe not. Ferran's Lady Chatterley isn't remotely bawdy, but it is candidly, tenderly carnal in a way rarely seen in contemporary cinema, where sexuality crouches trapped like a frightened deer between prissiness and prurience.
Coming from a director who hangs out with po-mo ironists like Arnaud Desplechin, this is surprisingly naturalistic filmmaking that refuses to engage with the feminist theories that have sent Lawrence's posthumous reputation careening from literary god to chauvinist devil. In fact, Lady Chatterley is a resolutely unintellectual movie whose primary language is its earthy physicality. For all Lawrence's advocacy of doing rather than talking, his lovers never shut up, forever arguing about class, a woman's place and the evils of civilization. There's only one talker in Lady Chatterley — her ladyship's coolly cerebral husband, Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), embittered by the Great War that deprived him of the use of his own nether regions and resigned his young wife Constance (Marina Hands) to a life of decorous misery. Until one day, consoling herself with a solitary walk around her unspeakably beautiful estate, she happens upon their unglamorously named gamekeeper Parkin, stripped to the waist, washing his rippling torso. Constance flees in apparent terror, but we find her next at home, stripping off her virginal bloomers to inspect her unspent body in the mirror. Pretty soon she's commandeered a spare key to the bare hut where Parkin (played by the relatively unknown stage actor Jean-Louis Coulloc'h, who has the doe eyes and bruised sadness of a ruined Brando) cuts wood and raises pheasants.
An ethereal but unpolished beauty swaddled in sensible skirts, Lady C. absorbs first with wonder and then with growing delight the taciturn man's stubby hands and thick, powerful body. The lovemaking that flows from the wordless companionship of this Beauty and Beast is awkward, fumbling and unlyricized by music at first. But the couple soon becomes freer and more passionately mutual, with cinematographer Julien Hirsch's camera attuned to the rapturous journey between their nakedness and the changing seasons around them. Ferran stages no less than six sex scenes, and at least two have a sublime silliness — how sexy could anyone look running around in the rain, breasts bobbing, clad only in Mary Poppins boots? — that both invites and defies ridicule. The movie flirts with wide-eyed naiveté, and the camera's unhurried contemplation of birds and flowers giddily invokes the National Geographic special, but Lady Chatterley is not without its sly interpretive strategies. For one thing, Ferran rereads the novel as a story of mutual liberation, not, as is often the case with Lawrence, a male teach-in on the evils of society and the delights of sex. Quietly, ecstatically and, above all, experientially, the movie both keeps faith with and holds in check Lawrence's romantic belief in the primacy of nature in all its forms over civilization. The supreme achievement of this lovely film — all three rhythmic, leisurely hours of it — is that what borders on faintly fascistic body worship in the novel instead feels as perfectly natural to us as it does to the lovers. Lawrence would kvell.