For further proof that international film accolades are no more a gauge of quality than the Oscars, Lady Chatterley arrives on domestic shores boasting a résumé that includes five 2007 French César Awards, including ones for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography. It's the last of these that's most undeserved, as Pascale Ferran's adaptation of the second, less well-known version of D.H. Lawrence's controversial classic (known by the title John Thomas and Lady Jane) shouldn't be associated with the term "cinematic" in almost any way, shape or form. Originally produced for television at a whopping 220 minutes and then cut down to its current, still-bloated theatrical running time of 168 minutes, the film is visually indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill PBS mini-series save for its copious nudity, which speaks less to its big-screen bona fides than the gap between European and American television standards. Center-frame compositions aren't, however, the Achilles Heel of this stately slog of a period piece, since a more pressing – and ultimately insurmountable – deficiency is pace. Because, you see, Lady Chatterley. Is. One. Of. The. Most. Sluggish. Erotic-Lit. Movies. Ever.
Airless, nondescript and mundane are also suitable adjectives to describe Ferran's faithful telling of the 1921 tale of titular lady Constance (the excellent Marina Hands), a quiet, obedient woman stuck in a stultifying marriage to Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), a WWI vet confined by battlefield injury to a wheelchair. Clifford is a cold fish of an invalid who provides his wife with neither emotional nor sexual comfort, and thus left to her own devices, Constance soon finds other sources of male attention – namely, her husband's gamekeeper Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h). Out for a walk amidst the fertile (and highly symbolic) vegetation, Constance stumbles upon Parkin bathing his naked torso in the morning sun, a sight that arouses such sudden feelings in her neglected nether regions that she flees to her bedroom, where she strips and gazes at her unclothed physique like someone who'd forgotten it existed. This reassessment of herself as a sexual being is quickly aided by Parkin, whom Constance begins habitually visiting on her daily walks until, predictably, their friendship explodes in a passionate kiss and, shortly thereafter, sweaty embraces, hushed moans, and revelatory penetration.
Except that "explodes" is the wrong word; something along the lines of "sputters" would be more apt. This is because, while Ferran employs her longueur-like tempo as a means of charging the atmosphere with barely suppressed desire, her film is so agonizingly slow that the overwhelming sensation emitted is instead one of inertia. Such torpor carries over to love scenes that eschew titillation – titillation being a prime accusation leveled against Lawrence's novel at the time of publication – but which also so self-seriously regard the intertwined Constance and Parkin that there's next to no heat to the supposedly transcendent couplings. Lady Chatterley's spatial arrangements do manage to competently visualize the dichotomy between Constance's alienation from Clifford and her closeness to Parkin, and Hands' performance (unlike that of her overly stolid co-star Coulloc'h) resourcefully employs small gestures and shifts in comportment to convey her character's tumultuous inner life. Yet Ferran's diligent preference for stasis is enervating, and only alleviated at sporadic intervals, such as with a moment of exultant liberation involving the clandestine lovers dancing nude in the rain.
Despite being the first movie adaptation of Lawrence's novel directed by a woman, Lady Chatterley offers no particularly novel or supplementary female perspective on the material. In fact, it's subtractions, rather than additions, that periodically characterize Ferran's work, which resorts to black screens overlaid with narration in what appears to be a makeshift means of conveying information found in excised scenes from the original TV cut. However, length is less troublesome than velocity. Persistent lethargy not only diffuses the proceedings' steaminess, but makes the narrative's address of sexual politics and class conflict – the latter found in the unequal standing between boss Constance and employee Parkin – both torpid and, more problematically, obvious, with each small comment on these tense relationships standing out like hand-holding footnotes rather than natural extensions of the action. That Ferran presents Lawrence's tale with Masterpiece Theater-type style and reverence certainly goes a long way toward explaining its enthusiastic Gallic critical reception. But even at its most compelling – which isn't very – this Lady is a film to merely grudgingly admire, not love.