A Tragic Age: The Radical Power Of Lady Chatterley's Lover

A Tragic Age: The Radical Power Of Lady Chatterley's Lover

Few love stories have been told and retold with as much vigour and controversy as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s Netflix take on the classic focuses on the electric tension in the forbidden affair. Carly Mattox retraces the story’s history and places it in our current era of social conservatism.

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.”

In Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s debut feature The Mustang, the French director appropriates an Americana aesthetic, evoking the classic western in order to tell the story of Roman, a convict who must reconcile his own wild nature by working with a mustang. Although this might make her an unlikely choice to helm the latest adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, de Clermont-Tonnerre has a deft hand in portraying life at its most visceral, to the film’s benefit.

Netflix is far from the first distributor to attempt an adaptation of the infamous novel; indeed, it would be a French director in 1955, whose film L'Amant de Lady Chatterley was banned from release in the United States – not because the content was particularly explicit, but because it promoted adultery. Another French director, Just Jaeckin, attempted his own version in 1981 starring Sylvia Kristel, an actress who Jaeckin had directed in a series of soft-core pornography films titled Emmanuelle. This version is, likewise, as empty as any other soft-core porn you might find, but Jaeckin shoots with a careful, artistic eye.

If any British director was primed to seize the Lady Chatterley reins during the 1980s, it would have been Ken Russell, who had been known for pushing boundaries for nearly three decades. Between his erotic explorations of pent-up sexual repression in The Devils; class consciousness in Women in Love; wild pagan landscape in The Lair of the White Worm; any combination of two or more of the above would have made for a more interesting adaptation than the resulting 1993 made-for-television series, which demonstrated Russell at his most restrained.

One more recent interpretation took the form of another unsuccessful made-for-television film in 2015, starring Holliday Grainger and Richard Madden. While Grainger is entirely believable as a haughty aristocrat, donning a great number of fancy hats, Madden demonstrates a heroic lack of grit – which made him perfect for his princely roles in Game of Thrones and Cinderella, but renders his performance hollow, like a child acting in a primary school performance of A Streetcar Named Desire.

It would seem as though Lady Chatterley had exhausted her capacity to shock and awe; online culture has made hardcore porn is increasingly accessible and sex work increasingly, rightfully acceptable, and so sex scenes on film have oft been criticised for seeming less and less radical. What possibly could have happened in the last seven years to make an adaptation of Lady Chatterley relevant again?

Netflix has become ubiquitous, in a slow but sure ascent only accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. People spent a lot of time at home, and therefore watching on-demand television has, without the restrictions of censor boards or television executives, opened the door to increasingly explicit content.

As a reaction, a certain wave of online discourse was triggered, predominantly on TikTok and Twitter, where Zoomers are rebuking sex scenes in prestige television, especially in shows like Euphoria or Bridgerton or, more recently, House of the Dragon. More than the typical right-wing moral panic, the conversation centered around whether or not these scenes are exploitative; consensual; necessary for the plot.

On 24 June 2022, it was announced that the United States Supreme Court had overturned the landmark Roe vs. Wade case, and rendered the right to abortion unconstitutional. The decision triggered an international response across the Western world, with everyone from Boris Johnson to Emmanuel Macron to Jacinda Ardern condemning the decision. There was now a sudden threat, once more, to not only a woman’s right to an abortion, but a right to her own body; a right to her own sexuality, her own pleasure, her own freedom.

So, it is now altogether unsurprisingly to me that the most explicit Lady Chatterley’s Lover adaptations tend to appear during periods of social conservatism.

The newest version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover benefits greatly from its casting; Emma Corrin is an actor of unbelievable charisma and the film’s first act focuses almost entirely on Corrin’s Lady Constance Chatterley, an earnest newlywed whose love for Sir Clifford seems entirely authentic. However, even before his fateful injury, Connie is seen to harbor an appetite for pleasure which Clifford is unfit to satiate. The audience is invited to sympathize with Connie, who waits on her husband with resigned devotion, before increasingly escaping into the countryside of their estate as a cathartic release. In the moments where Corrin occupies the screen alone, there is a quiet desperation, a constant searching in their wide blue eyes for something more.

Jack O’Connell plays Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper and eponymous lover of Lady Chatterley. Hailing from working-class Derbyshire himself, O’Connell has transformed from the rough-and-ready James Cook in Skins to a bonafide leading man in shows like The North Water and SAS: Rogue Heroes. He possesses a brash physicality which belies profound emotional depth, brandishing a boyish charm in his role as Mellors. In Corrin, he finds a worthy scene partner.

This is perhaps where Clermont-Tonnerre’s delicate touch becomes apparent; previously an actress herself, the director elevates the source material, capturing an electric tension between Connie and Mellors which gradually escalates into intimacy. The sex is indeed explicit, with full frontal nudity on display; as Connie begins to explore the depths of her sexuality, the scenes become more intense. The first time the two have sex outside, on the ground, de Clermont-Tonnerre focuses on pale skin against pale skin; hands against throats and collarbones; muscles tensed and streaked with mud. 

One striking shot frames Connie and Mellors having sex against a tree, wide, two figures becoming one against the landscape as the camera slowly zooms in. De Clermont-Tonnerre’s capable cinematographer Benoît Delhomme captures several similarly beautiful scenes of the English countryside, but this is the first scene distinguishing the film from its heritage competition. In a period setting, the landscape usually evokes the beauty of England, the nostalgia of an empire lost; here, it serves as a wild backdrop for a forbidden love affair. As a British film but equally a fearless portrait of sex and desire anywhere, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre has rendered Lady Chatterley radical once again. 

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