Posted by: Robin | April 6, 2008

Story Virgin

This morning I watched the French film “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” One of the gaping holes in my literary education is never having read any of D. H. Lawrence’s novels. I never knew Lady Chatterley’s Lover came in two versions (this movie is based on the second). So I watched this film as a virgin to the story. I don’t have any idea how right or wrong the filmmaker got it, and the semi-happy ending came as a shock. I don’t associate much of anything hopeful with the literature of the period.

The movie was set in post-WWI Britain, and the two leads were engaging in their awkwardness and reticence in the early stages, but having it all in French, including the pronunciation of English names colored everything. Something about the French language, the sound of it, changes the whole sensibility. I could not get beyond it and believe for those two hours and forty minutes (I’d expected the length to be arduous; it wasn’t) that I was in England, and these were English characters. The cavorting naked in the rain scene played into my French and English stereotypes making it harder to believe, and not having familiarity with the novel I could not say if the scene was authentic.

The viewing experience made me wonder if I had stumbled onto another way I’m an ‘ugly American.’ I realized an hour into it that this was my first foreign film set in an English-speaking world with English or American characters but filmed and acted by non-English speakers. My initial gut reaction was that it made no sense. Why didn’t they just transplant the story to French soil? Then I remembered the hundreds of films in English about non-English-speaking characters in foreign countries. What an English language prude I was! And yet, I wonder how much language shapes particular stories. The sound, the inflection, the flow. And is there a difference between English reserve and French reserve, or a French interpretation of English reserve? I will have to read the novel and get back to you.

As for the film itself, it is told lyrically and with leisure. The dialogue is parsimonious, and it needs to be. There is enough unsaid amongst these characters to fill an ocean, and maybe that is why they are each drowning in their own silent worlds. I liked how the film used nature and changing landscape to further the story, but I found the text shots to inform the viewer of time passing and the occasional narration in different voices to further the story annoying and somewhat arbitrary. The story would draw me in and then the text shots and narration would suddenly wrench me away. Some of the secondary relationships were elusive, and I felt I did not understand Constance’s relationship with her husband or lack of it well enough to appreciate the tragedy of what had happened between them, but the relationship between her and Parkin made it worth the investment to watch. I’m not sure what it says about a film that I don’t feel I can make a definitive appreciation until I read the novel it’s based on, but in this case being a story virgin left me feeling at a disadvantage.

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