If you ask Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger, explosions would have made this movie better. Wait, it had explosions. Never mind.
And this time the sharp ecstasy of her own passion did not overcome her; she lay with her ends inert on his striving body, and do what she might, her spirit seemed to look on from the top of her head, and the butting of his haunches seemed ridiculous to her, and the sort of anxiety of his penis to come to its little evacuating crisis seemed farcical. Yes, this was love, this ridiculous bouncing of the buttocks, and the wilting of the poor, insignificant, moist little penis. This was the divine love!—from Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
You know you read it, or at least thought about it. Nervous whispers between your middle school classmates might have goaded you into it, or perhaps a worldly foray during your bold college years led you there. Even if you have no firsthand experience, the collective unconscious has stuck scarlet post-it notes to its spine, beckoning you to read it. Somewhere among the dusty tomes of your local library's Brit Lit section, D. H. Lawrence's scandalous novel sits, waiting for the next curious hands to timidly caress its cover and thrill to those three words: Lady Chatterley's Lover. The title alone is enough to make innocent maidens shudder and men smirk.
Sadly, I have never read the whole book, but I have read a few sentences that shocked my young mind before one of my anxious classmates ripped it from my hands. There's one thing everyone knows about Lady Chatterley's Lover, which is that it's hot. Whether you grasp the nuances of British class politics, or bothered to read the war stuff, you know that Lawrence let it all hang out in the love scenes.
The burning question before us: How well does this erotic mainstay translate to the silver screen?
Lady Chatterley's Lover was at first far more impressive than I'd imagined it could be. Set on a lavish English estate that rivals the one in Robert Altman's Gosford Park, Lady Chatterley's Lover features a full house staff, a live foxhunt, a fancy dress ball, and even a war scene or two. I was kept busy admiring the lush trappings of British high society, and noticing the cooperation of moody mists and sparkling dew. Sir Clifford Chatterley (Shane Briant, Chameleon II: Death Match) is dashing, whether confronting Germans on the political battlefield or wooing his virginal fiancée (Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame). The sheer scale and detail are enough to power the initial scenes.
Somewhere along the line, the plot arc set itself in stone, and all that was left was to watch the marble roll along the etched path. Estate groundskeeper Oliver Mellors (Nicholas Clay) enters on cue to sweep Lady Chatterley off her feet, while the middle-aged widow, Nurse Ivy (Ann Mitchell, Widows 2) arrives to rub Sir Chatterley's bunions. Sir Clifford gets mad, while Lady Chatterley gets even. The characters play their determined roles, the actors play their determined characters, and the cameraman records it.
Just Jaeckin's screen treatment of this steamy snippet of literature goes all the way. He studiously shows us Nicholas Clay's penis and Sylvia Kristel's pubic hair, which is the cinematic equivalent of shocking highbrow smut. But Lawrence had the benefit of imagination. If you think it erotic to watch a man place sprigs of baby's breath around a naked woman's brow, then carefully trace flower petals in a line down her belly, Lady Chatterley's Lover is your speed. Lady Chatterley provides the requisite "slide my hand down my belly until it disappears and I grunt lustfully" scene, while Oliver soaps off his heaving flanks in a shower hard-earned after a day of chopping firewood. Dare I say it, the symbolism of Oliver pumping the water spigot while Lady Chatterley diddles herself is the high point of this film's eroticism, and the two aren't even touching each other.
Neither the expensive trappings nor the tepid eroticism should come as a surprise. Lady Chatterley's Lover comes at the twilight of Jaeckin's career of erotic misfires. It is a fitting bookend to his 1974 debut, Emmanuelle, which practically defined the "highbrow, yet mystifyingly dull" genre of erotic films starring Sylvia Kristel. I reviewed Emmanuelle awhile back, and I don't remember what I wrote about it, but in hindsight it leaves a vague aftertaste of boredom and stupor. Lady Chatterley's Lover is actually less boring than Emmanuelle, but somehow less sophisticated at the same time. To give you an idea, Amazon reports that people who looked at Lady Chatterley's Lover were actually most likely to purchase Bolero. If you're being owned by Bolero in the highbrow erotica market, it is time for some soul searching (or time to make Gwendoline and retire, which is what Jaeckin did).
MGM's handling of the disc is fine. You can flip between an anamorphic or full-screen version. Each renders the syrupy score in a workmanlike mono track, with no flaws worth mentioning but no real sense of presence either. The transfer has some dirt and print damage along with an overall dingy cast, but it is detailed and stable.
It may have kept late-nite cable afloat in the '80s, but Lady Chatterley's Lover has little dramatic or erotic impact now. Read the book—or better yet, watch a double feature of Gosford Park and Bolero.
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