D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel about a sexually frustrated English high society woman was my generation’s equivalent to today’s Fifty Shades of Grey. Unexpurgated copies of Lawrence’s book were as rare as hen’s teeth for decades until its publication in the United States, complete with the Appelate Court opinion that its literary value trumped any charges of obscenity. In terms of today’s literary and cinematic mores, such a controversy would seem more like a tempest in a teapot than a major cause célèbre.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover opens on the eve of World War I as newly married Sir Clifford Chatterley (Shane Briant, The Picture of Dorian Gray) leaves wife Constance (Sylvia Kristel, Emmanuelle) to join the English Army at the front. Clifford is seriously wounded and returns home a cripple and, worst of all, “not more than a half a man,” in other words, impotent.
As the baronet tries to adjust to life in a wheel chair, the young and beautiful Connie is having lustful nightmares. In a rare moment of candor, the paralyzed husband gives his wife permission to take on a lover as long as her real affections never stray. Clifford next engages physical therapist Ivy Bolton (Ann Mitchell) to attempt to get him to walk again. Ms. Ivy eventually insinuates her way into the Chatterley household, much to Constance’s discomfiture. Further stress lines in the marriage are exaggerated by the class difference between Clifford’s family, several rungs above that of Constance, and his focus on intellectuality while Constance has more physical needs.
While walking on the estate grounds, Lady Chatterley notices the well-built (and well-hung) gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors (Nicholas Clay) bathing himself and her sexual juices begin to flow. Constance, fantasizing about Mellors, masturbates “chastely” while wearing a veil. Eventually, Constance visits Mellors’ humble abode and when she asks for a door key so she can “watch the pheasants’ eggs hatch,” he abruptly refuses.
Lady Chatterley finally gets her special key, and the temperature on this film’s thermostat really heats up. Nocturnal visits to Mellors’s hut seem just what the doctor ordered and the rough-and-tumble sex that ensues introduces Connie to a brave new world of hedonism.
As the Mellors-Constance relationship evolves, we see how the different social worlds of post-war England, divided by the traditional class system, can never be reconciled. Ultimately, Lady Chatterley’s Lover deals more with bedsheets, unbridled libido, and raw sex than it does with true love. Director Just Jaeckin’s previous experience with soft-core porn (Emmanuelle) and Robert Fraisse’s (Seven Years in Tibet) often very intimate cinematography provide a film that definitely merits its “R” rating. D. H. Lawrence purists might bristle at the film’s treatment of the original story as it omits a considerable number of long (and not very exciting) passages about class issues, the labor movement and women’s roles in society. But, after all, what got the book its widespread attention in the first place was its explicit and often quite graphic description of sex acts.
The visuals are quite gorgeous, particularly the many recurring close-ups of Kristel’s beautiful features, on occasion recalling a young Catherine Deneuve. There is some softening of image outlines, but the color palette is great and the sex scenes (and there are a number of them) are quite vividly filmed.
This is a DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack that is clear and does an adequate job with the ultra-romantic music of Richard Harvey and Stanley Myers.
No extras are provided.
The Definitive Word
There have been subsequent cinematic adaptations of D.H. Lawrence’s most notorious novel, and this one succeeds more often than it fails. Sylvia Kristel was an actor whom the cameras just adored and watching her in scene after scene is like visiting a living art gallery. Viewers seeking a film simmered liberally in the heat of the moment, yet eschewing kinky bedroom maneuvers, should flock to this one and keep Fifty Shades of Grey waiting in the wings.
Additional Screen Captures