“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” has caused quite a stir throughout its lifetime.
Published privately in 1928, the book was banned in the United States until 1959. A full, uncensored version of D.H. Lawrence’s titillating novel wasn’t published in the United Kingdom until 1960, when it became the subject of a watershed obscenity trial. Lady Chatterley’s exploits have also been banned in Canada, Australia, India, and Japan. She’s quite the talked about gal.
Passages from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” today might seem a tad quaint. But at the time, a story about a upper class woman’s affair with her husband’s groundskeeper, written with explicit language and with an emphasis on femal sexual pleasure, was scandal incarnate. Today, while we’ve become more accustumed to sex in our books, our movies, and our television shows, there’s a rawness in Lawrence’s text that evokes something we’ve all but lost in mainstream American cinema.
There’s sensuality yes, but there’s a frankness that captures the reality of sex, in all its awkwardness and thrill, that you rarely see in today’s mainstream culture. Dominated by superhero films as Hollywood is today, popular movies tend to have a clean-cut morality that wipes out not just the gray area, but the sexy one as well. Eroticism seems to no longer appeal to mainstream audiences. No heart fluttering chemistry between Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser in a box office smash like “The Mummy,” no Dermot Mulroney using his mouth to pull a ring off of Julia Roberts’ finger in a hit romantic comedy like “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Everyone looks physically perfect, but somehow less sexy – or as R.S. Benedict put it in a wonderful essay, “Everyone is beautiful and no one is horny.”
Tonally “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” seems like the perfect material to counteract this sea of sexy babies and smooth, hairless men. And French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre certainly lends a certain desire to her Netflix adaptation, getting achingly close to achieving the tantalizing fervor the book had when it first became widely available. She has capable leads in Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell, whose intense chemistry makes us long for the moment their bodies finally meet. But that moment of consummation somehow falls flat, the build up far sexier than the act itself. Bathed in soft, delicate light at every turn, Corrin and O’Connell feel more like a beautifully posed painting than the fierce coupling they’re supposed to emulate, the film’s look too muted to properly capture that fire.
After a swift marriage and honeymoon before he returns to World War I, Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) is grievously injured and returns to his wife Connie (Corrin) paralyzed below the waist. Connie quickly becomes more caretaker than lover, distressed by Clifford’s lack of affection as his faults become ever apparent. Desperate for an heir, Clifford asks Connie to have sex with another man so she can become pregnant – but it must be the right kind of man, he insists. Connie, however, falls for the estate’s groundskeeper Oliver Mellors (O’Connell), leading to a sexual and intellectual awakening.
The Chatterley estate rolls over acres of lush green hills, and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme bathes the scenery in a beautiful blue/green muted texture, sunlight dappling the landscapes in the few moments it peeks its head out from behind the clouds. This color palette continues on inside the Chatterley home, but with a much darker tone, evoking the sense of entrapment Connie feels inside. Connie’s melancholy is colored by the lack of light in the home where she cares for Clifford and receives nothing in return. The house feels massive and dark, and she’s constantly asking to open the windows or let the fresh air in, allowing rays of dull light to stream into the cavernous house, barely fulfilling her need for space.
But when it comes to Connie’s relationship with Oliver, although the connection between them evolves, the film’s mood never does. The understated color palette, while beautiful, never arouses the same passion we see from our leads, capturing them in an otherworldly beauty rather than a fiery fervor. Sometimes, the actors can fight through it. The thing “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” does best is capture lustful build up. The crescendo to the act itself displays wonderful character work from Corrin and O’Connell. Connie is always the aggressor in these moments, kissing Oliver first, asking him to not treat her gently, to stop calling her “my lady.” Before their first tryst, Connie grabs his hand and brings it to her face with reckless abandon, the lines on Corrin’s face releasing tension as though this is the first time she’s been able to breathe in months. O’Connell’s performance during this moment is a wonderful exercise in horny restraint. He allows her to kiss his hand, to run it over her face, and he reciprocates – but he will not look at her, jaw clenched, fighting this unnamed thing between them.
That small moment before sex is one of the hottest scenes in a movie where Connie and Oliver copulate on pretty much every surface imaginable. The camera frames their joining with a sort of cold perfection. Wherever they are – surrounded by tall grass, up against a tree, on a workbench – there’s never a hair out of place, never an awkward twisting of a body, never a moment that allows them to feel human rather than ethereal, bathed in the light of angels. Those moments are reserved for before and after – there’s quite an endearing scene of Oliver feeling bashful over his groin area, as Connie looks on, laughing. But when a film only shows you the desperation, the thorny attraction, in the build up, treating its leads like nothing but beautiful subjects during the act itself, you lose the sense of freedom that makes the text so special.