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Friday, July 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Ménage à trois: two lovers, one garden in "Lady Chatterley"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

Showtimes

"Lady Chatterley," with Marina Hands, Jean-Louis Coulloc'h, Hippolyte Girardot, Helene Alexandridis, Helene Fillieres. Directed by Pascale Ferran, from a screenplay by Ferran and Roger Bohbot, based on "John Thomas and Lady Jane" by D.H. Lawrence.

168 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains nudity and sexuality). In French with English subtitles.

Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" does not do quite what you expect. Well, yes, there are the scenes you might predict, with a pair of naked lovers bedecking each other with flowers and experiencing ecstasy in a rustic cottage. But this film has a surprising, appealing coolness; rather than the overheated passion many of us remember from the D.H. Lawrence book about a British nobleman's wife who, in her loneliness on her husband's estate, falls into an affair with the gamekeeper. It becomes as much a celebration of nature as of carnality, a lyrical exploration of its main character's journey.

Also unexpected is the source of Ferran's film: It's not Lawrence's well-known 1928 novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover," but an earlier version of the same work, published in English as "John Thomas and Lady Jane." (All English-lit majors should feel free to insert a dirty snicker here.) The book, according to a statement from Ferran, is a more simple, direct telling of the tale, with a few key differences. Parkin, the gamekeeper, is here a simple man from the village who chose his profession over being a miner, so that he could preserve his solitude. In the 1928 novel, he's named Mellors and, though working-class, is a former army officer.

And Ferran describes the earlier book as "literally overrun by vegetation" — that plants are not just a metaphor for Connie Chatterley's transformation but a constant accompaniment to it. The film, beautifully shot by Julien Hirsch, likewise seems virtually framed by vines. The path on which Connie walks to the cottage is made crunchy by russet autumn leaves; the movie's leisurely action is at times interrupted by close-ups of flowers from Connie's garden.

Marina Hands (who'll be seen later this season in Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") as Connie is delicately pretty; she's a carefully tended flower in slow bloom. Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h) is more roughhewn, not handsome but watchful and intelligent. Their chemistry develops slowly; you can almost hear the turning of the pages. It's a little jarring to hear these very English characters speaking French, but the actors win us over. (Despite the language spoken, the movie still takes place in England; the story, you suspect, might be entirely different if these people weren't Brits.)

"Lady Chatterley" employs several unexpected voices — title cards, a slightly jarring narrative voice-over — to remind us of an authorial presence. And indeed, the deliberate pace of the film feels very much like the luxurious experience of reading a novel: movies unfold at a predetermined pace, books take as long as we want them to. Like a sprawling afternoon spent reading Lawrence, Ferran's film is a welcome and often enthralling escape — for Connie, and for us.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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