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Mariane’s Labyrinth

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Having written in college what I consider the definitive paper on D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the teaching assistant who graded it did not appreciate its modernist lack of conventional structure, misguidedly concluding it was a stream-of-consciousness first draft spewed out under deadline pressure), I fairly swaggered into Pascale Ferran’s French-language Lady Chatterley, only to discover it was based on the second, rather than third (best known, most banned) version of the novel. It was unfamiliar—the outline similar but the atmosphere much … Frenchier. In Ferran’s film, Lady Constance Chatterley (Marina Hands) does not have the awkward blessing of her husband, Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), paralyzed in World War I, to conceive an heir with another man before she embarks on her hungry affair with the gamekeeper, here called Oliver Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h). And once she does, there’s none of that English self-recrimination that bubbles up even in Lawrence. There are psychological bumps on the road, bien sûr, but you come away with a vision of two naked people frolicking in the forest in a downpour, ecstatically at one with the natural world—which is significantly more temperate than its British equivalent.

The film is supposedly set in England, but when you hear the characters talk about going to Sheffield, they might as well be saying “Planet Naboo”—this is France. Ferran replaces Lawrence’s acid musings about the sexes (especially the clueless men) with occasional intertitles and an unemotional female narrator—very strange. She also stretches the story out to 168 minutes, many of them languorous. I found the first half-hour a snooze, but once I adjusted to the movie’s rhythms, I was completely enraptured. Ferran weaves the love affair into nature, but not in the mystical, sanctified manner of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. The look is rough-hewn, the feeling casual yet supremely alert. The director’s glance takes in streams, clouds, swaying leaves; the soundtrack picks up wind, birds, and woodpeckers, the creak of the floorboards as Parkin approaches Constance Chatterly for the first time.

The look is perfectly in tune with Marina Hands, who fits Lawrence’s description of a country girl—very pretty but with curves and freckles, without the refinement (or the cultivated arrogance) of her husband. Once or twice I caught Hands overdoing the ingenuous wonderment thing, but her Constance has nothing of an actress’s guile, and she almost literally blooms before our eyes. Coulloc’h is not what you’d anticipate. His hair is thinning, his face broad (in the Rip Torn mode, but without the randiness), his body soft. What makes him attractive is the fear in his eyes. You see him the way Constance does, encased within himself; you understand why she wants to bring him out. Each sex scene is different—the lovemaking changes as the lovers learn to communicate. Nothing in Lady Chatterley feels salacious. When Constance looks at Parkin’s shriveled penis after sex and remarks how small it has become, you’re not even embarrassed for the character (or the actor). It’s up, it’s down, it’s big, it’s small. It’s au naturel.

Right-wing commentators who fulminate about the absence of God and Holy Scripture in Hollywood movies should be pleased—their prayers have been answered!—by Evan Almighty. Except that—oops—God is a black guy and a radical environmentalist, his wrath reserved for developers and the fat-cat politicians they buy with their filthy lucre. In Bruce Almighty, the Lord (Morgan Freeman) gave Jim Carrey unlimited power, and before the film got drippily sincere, it had a good manic stretch with Carrey doing his spastic-clown number. This one is built around Steve Carell’s mild self-effacement. He plays the conceited news anchor he did in Bruce Almighty, only now he becomes a politician and goes to Congress “to change the world.” Taking him at his word, God casts him as Noah in a bid to kill a piece of anti-environmental legislation. As in the last movie, there’s a good middle stretch: Carell’s hair and beard start growing uncontrollably, and he stammers lamely trying to explain to his staff and colleagues why pairs of animals are converging on him in the nation’s Capitol Building. But Evan Almighty runs out of comic invention early, and the filmmakers fall back on what real politicians do when they exhaust their small stash of ideas: brainless piety.

Nancy Drew opens ineptly (it’s hard even to know what’s going on), and the story line takes its heroine out of her small town to a Los Angeles that looks like outtakes from Clueless. It gets better, though. It’s one of the few tween movies that isn’t in your face; its limpness becomes appealing. Largely that’s because its Nancy Drew is so special. Emma Roberts is another in the Roberts clan—Eric’s daughter, Julia’s niece—and like her aunt, she has oversize features and coltish legs. But she hasn’t gotten slick yet. She acts like a young girl who’s still delighted—as so many Nancy Drew readers were—just saying the word sleuth.

A Mighty Heart
Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Paramount Vantage. R.

Lady Chatterley
Directed by Pascale Ferran. Kino International. NR.

Evan Almighty
Directed by Tom Shadyac. Universal Pictures. PG.

Nancy Drew
Directed by Andrew Fleming. Warner Bros. PG.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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