There's a doll-like quality to the way actress Marina Hands walks and talks, stops and stares, in the sensual (of course) but profoundly moving Lady Chatterley. Not in a dumb doll way, mind you, but like a wooden toy suddenly sprung to life, sentient, new to the world, taking it in.
In the role of Constance Chatterley in Pascale Ferran's lucid adaptation of an early (and significantly different) draft of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Hands nods her head, eyes wide, as she moves through the copses and fields in a state of blissful shock. The wife of a mining magnate crippled in the First World War, she is heading for another assignation with her lover: the gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), who works for her husband and lives on her husband's land.
A long, but never lazy, celebration of the natural world, of sexual desire and discovery, and of the peculiar social order of early-20th-century Britain (the servants and the served, the rise of socialism, the casual imperiousness of the upper class), Lady Chatterley is also a heartbreaking story of true love.
As Constance and Parkin grow more comfortable, and carnal, together - coupling under trees, running naked in the rain, planting tiny wildflowers on each other's bodies - their intimacy becomes much more than corporeal. The woman and the man sound each other out about their feelings, their longings, their sadnesses, in startlingly open, empathic ways. Constance's and Parkin's directness, in fact, startles even themselves. They're creatures out of step with their times.
Coulloc'h, exuding a very Brandoesque vibe, brooding and muscular, does almost as much with the loping silences of Ferran's film as Hands does. That is, he inhabits the quietness; his thoughts are perceivable, if not readable. Parkin's wariness at being used by his "mistress" - his master's wife - gives way to a complex mix of soul-deep adoration and brute frustration.
The other key characters in Lady Chatterley, winner of five Cesar Awards (the French Oscar) this year, are Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), the acerbic cuckold, Constance's spouse, and Mrs. Bolton (Helene Alexandridis), the aristocrat's attendant nurse.
Ferran brings a woman's sensibilities to Lady Chatterley, fixing the camera's lens on her subject - Constance, as she travels from lifeless malaise to an altered, almost transcendental state. For the heroine of this remarkable film, the physical world offers a key to something greater: the knowledge that she, and everything, is alive.
Lady Chatterley ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Produced by Gilles Sandoz, directed by Pascale Ferran, written by Ferran and Roger Bohbot based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence, photography by Julien Hirsch, music by Béatrice Thiriet. Distributed by Kino International. In French with subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 48 mins.
Lady Chatterley. . . Marina Hands
Parkin. . . Jean-Louis Coulloc'h
Mrs. Bolton. . . Helene Alexandridis
Sir Clifford. . . Hippolyte Girardot
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (sex, nudity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.