Pascale Ferran is the director of the film Lady Chatterley. The film has won 11 awards, among them 5 Césars (including ones for Best Film and Best Writing-Adaptation) and Lumieres for Best Director and Best Actress. Lady Chatterley was released nationally in the United States in June 2007, after premiering at The Tribeca Film Festival in April.
The movie closely follows the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence’s book is about a young woman named Constance who has married a wealthy but physically paralyzed man named Clifford. The sexual abstinence implicit in her marriage leads her to have an affair with the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. When it was originally published in 1960, the novel caused a great deal of controversy, and Penguin Books was tried in Britain under the Obscene Publications Act. There are three versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In each version, Lawrence rewrote the novel from start to finish, although their differences are rather subtle.
A native French speaker, Ferran spoke with the help of a translator. The interview originally aired on WKCR FM NY, April 26, 2007, when Ferran was interviewed by Anne Cammon.
Anne Cammon: Why did you decide to adapt this particular version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?
Pascale Ferran: I like the second version so much more than the third. D.H. Lawrence rewrote Lady Chatterley three times, and the final version—the third version—is what he considered to be definitive. But I prefer the second. There are a lot of differences between the second and the third versions, but the main one is the character of the gamekeeper.
AC: In what ways is he different in this version?
PF: Well, in the second version the gamekeeper is a much wilder, more sensitive character. He’s a very solitary man, with a complicated relationship to speech. He really should have been a miner, but he didn’t enjoy being around people. He prefers being alone in the woods like a hermit. In the film and in the book both characters are really transformed by their relationship and by their love. And his transformation really pivots around speech. Thanks to Constance, thanks to the love they share and the trust that emerges between the two of them, this transformation is possible. He finally becomes able to express himself and to express his feelings, and in the end of the film there is a very moving scene where he really gives in to speech and actually expresses his feelings with language.
AC: In your presentation, you obviously depart from some key aspects of the book—the book is composed of words; the film is composed of images. But beyond that, you do not use any techniques that would give the feeling of reading the book: no voice-overs, no narration. In that sense, what you’re giving us is so thoroughly your own interpretation. Could you articulate that for us?
PF: What really struck me in the book is that Lawrence takes the time to describe in great minutia each meeting between the two characters. It’s almost as though the story had never been told to anyone before, and also, as though it had never been lived by anyone. And it provides a renewed or a refreshed version of a love story, even though love stories are told all the time. We have the impression, for instance, the first time she touches his face or the first time they kiss it’s the first time a human being touches another, or the first time two human beings kiss.
What also interested me was the love process between these two characters. They start from a very strong physical attraction, taking pleasure in their physical contact, and then go through a long process of getting to know each other—their respective cultures, their respective differences, and so forth. And finally, through touch, they are able to establish a very deep trust and sort of abandon themselves to each other.
I also think it’s a revolutionary process. The two characters come out deeply transformed, both in themselves and in their vision of the world. They come out freer and braver, and maybe more intelligent. They are able to get rid of the various identifications that enclosed them: their social identities, their identities as a servant and an aristocrat, man and woman, wife and ultra-masculine male.
AC: And how does nature play into this relationship?
PF: The film strives to really go into the minds of the two characters, particularly Constance’s. There are a thousand things going through her mind—emotions, moods, feelings and thoughts. A whole mental landscape is being drafted, and nature is acting as a reflection of that inner landscape.
AC: And do you feel the length of the film, [168 minutes], is necessary for the viewer to experience this transformation?
PF: Yes, I do. I think this is the correct length. The story deals with an arc of transformation that’s very broad. At the beginning of the film Constance is sort of like a 19th-century woman, and by the end of the film she’s more like a woman from the late 20th-century. The whole action takes place over the time span of nine months, and in my mind that’s not a coincidence since it is about a rebirth, a renaissance. The film also stays as close as it possibly can to the present, and that necessitates a certain amount of time to tell the story properly.
AC: And again, that’s back to the seasons. There’s a quote from the beginning of the film, when some of the husband’s friends from the war are discussing the effect of the battleground upon the human body. And one of them says something very interesting. He tells a story in which a soldier was hit, I think in the foot or the ankle, and he died. The quote was, “No vital organ was hit, yet he died.” That seemed to have resonance for me, in that—you are dead if you think you’re dead. Is this a theme that you’re cultivating in the film?
PF: For me it was a concise way of evoking what was going through Constance’s mind at that time in her life. She was in a situation where she had a husband who was living, but was, in a way, dead. By being with him, she also renounced her vitality to some degree.
AC: So, it was a death of the senses?
AC: Classically in Victorian novels when there is an affair going on, there is a sense that society is watching them. And it’s like a bomb, just waiting to go off—they’re going to get caught. I was interested in how this dramatic tension was played with in the film and, without giving too much away, in a way there wasn’t a sense that people were watching and they were going to get caught. At a certain point I think the viewer realizes that this isn’t really what the film is about—it’s about their love and their experience. But, was this a dramatic tension that you were still toying with in the making of the film?
PF: Yes, indeed. I think the reader has much more of a sense of fear in the book, a fear that the two lovers were going to get caught. But in the making of the film I couldn’t address every aspect of the book. So I decided to address adversity from the point of view of the inner landscape of the minds of both characters. Both of them are aware that the relationship they are living is impossible, and to a certain extent unthinkable. It takes a long time for them to even conceive of a future for themselves. So I tried to create a tension that would arise from the character’s internalization of the social codes of conduct—those that dictate their story is impossible.
AC: That’s interesting . . . that’s very hard to do, in a film. I think it was accomplished well. What characteristics were you looking for in casting the three main characters?
PF: With Lady Chatterley and her lover, Parkin, I was looking for actors whose bodies would incarnate the social classes their characters are respectively from. This way, the actors would not have to struggle to compose a social background; it would simply be incarnated in their physical presence. For instance, Parkin is a very earthy man who works with the soil. He has a sculpted body, which has to with his physical work. Constance evokes aristocracy—although she is a country aristocrat, because she blushes easily, like a country girl.
Additionally, with regards to Lady Chatterley’s character, I knew I needed a great actress, with a lot of virtuosity and skill, because the character’s trajectory in the film is so complex. I wanted the audience to identify with her at all times, even when she is not speaking. I also wanted someone who is very much in touch with the senses and who is able to convey a certain sensuality. When I met Marina Hands, I immediately thought she was the ideal actress for this role, and I think it is my greatest pride having found her. I’m so proud that the audience is as convinced as I am that she’s a fantastic actress.
AC: Yes, absolutely. The physical spaces that the characters inhabit are very much delineated. Parkin, for instance, almost never leaves the warden. The husband is very limited by the nature of his physical condition; he can hardly leave the house, and can’t leave his chair. Except for Lady Chatterley, who can really go anywhere. Now, is this delineation of social space meant to reflect their social condition, and if so, what would you say is Lady Chatterley’s?
PF: I think this physical trajectory is not so much a social condition as a human condition. Indeed, both men occupy two very distinct territories and Constance goes from one to the other. But in the end her territory becomes the in-between of these two territories.
AC: And for my final question, would you call this poetry of the cinema?
PF: No, actually in France poetic film is a term we are rather weary of, so I wouldn’t define my film this way.
Jean Cocteau, who is a poet and in my mind a great film-maker, once said that one can make poetry, but one is not allowed to say that is what one is doing. So, maybe you can qualify my film as such, but I will refrain from doing so. [laughter]
AC: Thank you so much for joining us.
PF: Thank you.
Anne Cammon curates the literary radio show Art Waves on WKCR FM New York. Her fiction and poetry has been published in Nth Position, Blue Print Review, Poor Mojo’s Almanac[k], Verse-Myth, and many others.
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