NOTHING sexual is forbidden to today's filmmakers, but paradoxically, that has made some things more difficult to put on screen. While explicitness and simulated candor are everywhere, sensuality has become harder to come by because it requires an emotional nakedness and vulnerability at odds with the soulless superficiality that's so much in vogue.
So it's a special pleasure to report that the French "Lady Chatterley" is the most frankly sensual movie in memory. Winner of five Cesars, the French Oscar, including best picture and best actress for its luminous star, Marina Hands, it has found the soul of the celebrated D.H. Lawrence novel about the forbidden love between a nobleman's wife and a gamekeeper by treating it in a way that is distinctly modern as well as classical, even old-fashioned.
Lawrence wrote three versions of the sexually frank novel, which was forbidden publication in England until 1960, when it was cleared of obscenity charges after a trial in which the prosecutor famously asked the jury, "Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?"
But yesterday's sensations often lose their power to shock, and the four-letter words, sexual situations and class conflicts that unnerved people when Lawrence initially published the book in Italy in 1928 are not nearly enough to offend most anymore.
But director Pascale Ferran, who won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1994 for her first film, "Coming to Terms With the Dead," connected to the core of Lawrence's idea of the transformative power of sexual passion and saw a way to make it come alive to today's viewer. The first thing she decided to do was base her film on the second version of Lawrence's novel, published as "John Thomas and Lady Jane," a version less bitter than the final draft and the one that would have been the best fit for "Tenderness," one of Lawrence's alternate titles for the book.
What is most modern about Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" is its sexual candor. Though it does without the pornographically explicit sexuality that has become fashionable for contemporary European art cinema, the film's extensive use of nudity, including full-frontal shots, would not have been possible in years past.
The film's half-dozen physical love scenes are remarkable in the way they combine that up-to-date nudity with a throwback focus on the faces of the participants, especially Hands' Lady Chatterley, as they are in what used to be called the throes of passion, a focus that recalls Hedy Lamarr in "Ecstasy" and other erotica of an earlier era.
Because so much of "Chatterley" is in essence a two-person drama, its success wouldn't have been possible without actors willing to commit themselves to these parts literally body and soul. The film's two stars so immerse themselves in character and situation that they are equally comfortable expressing the physical and psychological aspects of their relationship.
Jean-Louis Coulloc'h , who plays the gamekeeper Parkin, is relatively new to acting and has a rough-hewn awkwardness essential for the part. As for Hands, who has a key role in the forthcoming "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," she has an especially expressive face that is always alive and in the moment.
Key to the impact the film's sexual situations have is how they've been shot. "Lady Chatterley" is presented in a restrained, intelligent manner, as classical as it is unhurried and unobtrusive, a style that is so out of fashion that it's almost as shocking today as the nudity and sex would have been in years past.
For the key thing about "Lady Chatterley" is that it's a film with the courage to take its time. Though it runs a daunting-sounding 2 hours, 48 minutes, that length is necessary to achieve Ferran's goal of gradually immersing us completely in the world of its characters, enabling us to feel what they're feeling as they're feeling it.
Though it incongruously keeps the novel's English names, this French "Lady Chatterley" pares the story and characters. We first see Lady Chatterley at a dinner party with her husband, Sir Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), a paralyzed World War I veteran whose injury is supposed to represent the weakness and futility of the upper class. Reduced to things like polishing the silver with the servants, Lady C. does not exactly have a rich, fulfilled life either.
One day, out to give an order to the house's gamekeeper, Lady Chatterley sees him from the back, naked from the waist up. The sight, striking like a madly passionate coup de foudre, stops her cold and leads her to invent reasons to spend more and more time with this taciturn but not unresponsive man.
Not surprisingly, given Lawrence's belief in its powers, the two initially bond over a love for the beauty of the natural world, a splendor which the film itself, led by cinematographer Julien Hirsch, who won a Cesar for his work, is also enraptured with.
Because "Lady Chatterley" is committed to its deliberate style, we get to fully appreciate what a fraught relationship this is, how and why societal and personal pressures make these two people feel so awkward with each other that, in the director's words, "they have to re-accustom themselves to one another" every time they meet.
To see this difficult love believably take root and flower is a tribute to the power of passion, not only the passion between lovers but the kind that animates filmmakers as well.
"Lady Chatterley." No MPAA rating. Running time: 2 hours, 48 minutes. In selected theaters.