These days, with rappers singing about “wet-ass pussy” and Ana de Armas simulating a presidential blow job in “Blonde,” it’s hard to imagine a world in which a couple four-letter words are enough to get a book banned. In the case of D.H. Lawrence’s notorious 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” it was more than just the sex talk that riled the censors (the 1955 French film version was banned because it “promoted adultery”), although the book certainly seems tame by the standards of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and whatever gynecological surprises an un-Safe Google search might turn up.
How then to approach Lawrence’s controversial classic today, when audiences have seemingly seen it all, but still find themselves surfing for titillation on Netflix (judging by the streamer’s T&A-skewing Top 10 lists)? In an admirable bid to make “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” at once respectable and arousing, French director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (“Mustang”) embraces the erotic nature of its source, while making it something you can still recommend to your mom, assuming she’s got nothing against a nude romp in the rain.
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To play Lady C., she has tapped Emma Corrin, who broke out on Season 4 of “The Crown” as the young Princess Di. Now the actor trades Highgrove House for Wragby, the fictional estate where Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) lets his bride run free. Clifford was maimed in the Great War, leaving his equipment all but nonfunctional, but he wants an heir, and so he gives Constance permission to produce one as discreetly as possible with another man. “I wouldn’t want you to yield yourself completely to him,” he warns, though this does at least constitute an “understanding.”
De Clermont-Tonnerre and screenwriter David Magee (whose last produced film was “Mary Poppins Returns”) have chosen not to take Lawrence too literally, adopting the broad sweep of the plot while scrubbing it of so many of the details that might interfere with your arousal — like the idea that the rugged gamekeeper who quickens Connie’s pulse is a brute and a bigot, ranting about what rotten lovers most women are. As embodied by Jack O’Connell, however, Oliver Mellors is a sensitive, consent-minded soul with a baby face and soft, three-day scruff. Unable to secure a divorce from his own unfaithful wife, he reads James Joyce and seems at least conceptually aware of the female orgasm. (Lawrence’s fella wouldn’t have been caught dead going down on a woman, whereas here, the practice seems to give him pleasure.)
This retelling isn’t strictly about the sex, although de Clermont-Tonnerre holds no illusions that she’s making a blue movie — an outdated word for a pornographic film. Whether by coincidence or design, she embraces the color throughout, with DP Benoît Delhomme filtering everything such that Wragby (which is quite lovely, if you ignore the smokestacks above Clifford’s coal mine) looks constantly overcast and the lovers’ skin has an almost zombie-like pallor.
The film’s not at all shy about skin, letting audiences appreciate the characters’ blue bodies in all sorts of erotic poses, entwined beneath that great blue sky, or else writhing beside the bluest flowers you ever did see. Connie’s bold red and yellow dresses stand out nicely against all that azure, and the costumes are really quite remarkable overall, especially during the warmer stretch where the already pregnant lady sneaks away to Venice to fake an affair.
Lawrence was quite specific about what type of woman Connie was — “a ruddy, country-looking girl with soft brown hair and sturdy body, and slow movements, full of unused energy” — whereas gender-fluid Corrin is none of these things: They’re startlingly skinny, for starters, speaking their lines with such propriety that there’s no sense of the country about them. If anything, they suggest a young, birdlike Bo Derek (who, in “Bolero,” played a woman who finds more creative solutions than Connie could imagine after her bullfighter boyfriend is gored in the groin), blinking delicately whenever the character doesn’t know what to say.
In the end, the couple’s chemistry is off the charts, and that’s all that matters — though there’s still a too-tasteful David Hamilton-like quality to it all. Maybe it’s all the plein-air lovemaking, or the way Isabella Summers’ piano-and-strings score is constantly swelling itself into a tizzy. The novel is enormously critical of industry and all that is modern while showing enormous respect for nature. Clifford deserves to be cuckolded in part because he exploits his workers, and a sequence in which his electric wheelchair can’t make it up the hill nicely captures how ill-suited he is to the outdoors.
There’s only so much one can do with the material, which has lost most of its capacity to offend. Instead of pushing the envelope, de Clermont-Tonnerre wisely opts for subtlety. Where Lawrence’s characters stoked their passions through heated debate, hers exchange meaningful glances, into which audiences can read as much as they please. That strategy extends quite nicely to Clifford’s nurse, the widowed Mrs. Barton (a great Joely Richardson), who serves as an almost-silent witness to Connie’s humiliation. It is she who gets the last word, transforming tragedy into something romantic: “She gave up everything for him: title, wealth, her position in the world.” What’s not to love?
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” will be released in theaters in November, then on Netflix in December.
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