Lady Chatterley's Director Pascale Ferran

Genesis of Project

I had read Lady Chatterley's Lover about six months earlier, and it was in the period that followed the end of Paratonnerre that I discovered the second version of the book: Lady Chatterley et l'homme des bois (published in English as John Thomas and Lady Jane). Immediately, the book began to preoccupy me. It should also be noted that between L'Age des possibles and Paratonnerre I had worked for some time with Pierre Trividic on a project for a screenplay that dealt with some of the same issues as Lady Chatterley. It was a huis clos between a man and a woman, a romantic fling that transformed the two protagonists. The film was supposed to take place entirely indoors: they brought the world and their moods from outside, but you didn't see any of it. Intimacy, the issue of sex, was one of the central themes of the film.

Anyway, we never actually succeeded in writing it, and the project was abandoned. But when I discovered Lady Chatterley, in a way it was like a reunion with that old project. A happy reunion, because where we had failed, Lawrence succeeds brilliantly, especially in the scenes of intimacy, where he is able to create moments of truth between the two characters that seem to me very difficult to write. The book put me at a good distance from the project, far enough from my own biography to be able to really see what's going on between the two characters.

Film's Two Versions: TV and Cinema

Along with Gilles Sandoz, the film's producer, we very quickly envisaged a double version, one long in two parts for television; the other, shorter, for theatrical release. This was both for production reasons, since the funding from ARTE wasn't nearly enough to make the film, and for deeper reasons that have to do with the experience itself.

The film is the story of a transformation–the meticulous recounting of the experiences and states Constance goes through and which transform her. There is nothing more beautiful than when the time period of transformation is in unison with the projection time. And it's only cinema that offers that at its optimal rate of intensity.

Casting the Two Lovers

There was one particular parameter, and that was the physical appearance of the characters. It was essential that the bodies of the actors carry their social origins, their class difference, so that that issue would be permanently portrayed onscreen.

I had noticed Marina Hands as a very unusual young actress for a long time. She was one of a few actresses I thought of while I was writing. And then when I met her, there was one of those rare connections between me and her and between her and the project. It was crucial for the actress who was going to play Constance to be totally in tune with the future film. It's an extremely demanding role, which requires total commitment for months. That's possible only if the actress has almost the same internal need to tell the story as the filmmaker does, and only if there is complete, reciprocal trust. We had a couple of meetings, and I realized very quickly that it had to be her. She has something deeply romantic, and at the same time brave and audacious, this incredible appetite for work.

For Parkin, I was looking for an unknown actor, because I wanted him to burst onto the screen as he does into Constance's life. He needed an archaic, earthy body. His body had to suggest a close relation to the earth. It was Sarah Teper (casting director), who talked to me about Jean-Louis Coulloch, whom she'd seen several times onstage. With him, it took longer to feel sure. He became an actor quite late, he had almost never worked on film, and the role is very difficult when you have so little experience. But we prepared him very carefully, and also, since we were filming in chronological sequence, he opened up more and more as the filming went on, like Parkin himself, and that was really wonderful.

Adaptation that Avoids the Scandalous

The novel itself is very far removed from the stereotypical view that has stuck with us. Lawrence wrote the book 80 years ago against his times, the puritanical England of the 1920s, to try to put sexuality back where he thought it should be. That is, as an integral part of a romantic relationship, and not as something shameful that must be hidden and never spoken of. He describes the physical love scenes between the two lovers in minute detail, and because of those scenes, the book is accused of obscenity. Today that's all we remember, the transgression, the scandal. Eighty years later, that's no longer where we are. The 20th Century and psychoanalysis got through that. Sexuality is no longer something shameful, it's pretty much being marketed to us everywhere we turn; and I think that today the least transgressive version that you could make of the novel would be to adapt it according to the stereotypical view, that is as a porn story between an aristocrat and her gamekeeper.

What's funny is that when I wanted to adapt the book, I also had the impression of making a film against my times–against the two currently authorized representations of desire in cinema. On the one hand, there's the already old, almost obsolete representation, where as soon as the two lovers are in bed, the film brutally changes in nature–music, dissolve sequences, ellipsis. And on the other hand, a “modern” representation of desire and sexual practices, detached from all affect, from all thoughts of the characters, basically the high-life of animal drive. In that representation, most often it is only the body that talks. It's the body in opposition to the word. And desire becomes an area of human expression that is no longer linked to the other areas.

Desire between Constance and Parkin

It's desire that makes the world go round. But I am against desire as lust alone, because for me, that's a non-truth. For Lawrence, even when desire seems to come down to its most simple expression, there is something else going on. In that first scene where Constance sees Parkin bathing with his shirt off, it's not just sexual attraction, or even an aesthetic shock for Constance. It's both the shock of discovering that there are still bodies in this world, when she was feeling dispossessed of one; and a mimetic desire, the desire to be that body, in that it tells of happy solitude in the heart of the forest. So desire can never be reduced to a simple drive.

The beauty of Lawrence's book, and what makes it so deeply modern, is that it puts the body first. It's the body against the restrictive social codes and identities. But it doesn't at all pit the body against the characters' thoughts or feelings. When Parkin watches Constance sleeping on the threshold of the cabin later on, he doesn't just see the boss, or an object of desire, he also sees a young woman who is alone, like him. Because it is also simply the story of two solitary people who meet each other, two solitary people, each trapped in their identities: hers of wife and aristocrat, his of man of his time and servant – identities that weigh equally on each of them. And the whole process of their romantic relationship will be to rid themselves of these limiting identities, to carve out a shared space that gives them back their freedom, ability to act, and joy–the three, as in Spinoza, being one.

Taming in Film

You never know what is going to happen between them, because they themselves don't know. It's tied to their objective situation; their class difference makes it impossible for them to anticipate anything, since their relationship is ostensibly unthinkable. So the only possible space for their romance is in the present. And at the same time, each new meeting changes their horizons. Both in the periods when they are together, when they generally experience pretty powerful emotional things that transform them on sight; and also in the periods when they are separated but where they continue to be changed by the experiences they've had together the previous time.

Evidently, one of the things that results from that is that for a long time you can have the impression that nothing is building up between them, that it's just a series of present moments. Their romance really exists on the razor's edge. With each new meeting, they have to re-accustom themselves to one another, get back in sync, or convince one or the other that they do actually have something together. And depending on the other's words, gesture or mood when they meet, everything can topple, or even end entirely, at any moment. That's precisely what creates the impression of things being in the present.


It's clearly a mutual domination–a social domination and a male/female domination, each of the two protagonists being dominant in one area and dominated in the other. In the book, it's very pure, almost like a lab experiment. But there, too, you have the impression that history has retained only one of the two problems: that of the class difference, because of the scandalous nature of that issue at the time. But today, that scandal has largely disappeared. In a sense, Lawrence won. So, looking at the book, there are immediately two pretty distinct tacks you can take. The first is to decide that this theme, that love is stronger than all class barriers, is still at the core of the book. And in that case, to restore something of the scandal of the time, you need to make a transposition. That can lead to something like Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven, for example. The other, which is my starting hypothesis, is to think that the core of the book lies more in the exploration of the birth of a relationship; an exploration of love as an opportunity to access intimate truths. It's about how a process can be set into motion by the totally forbidden attraction of two bodies–and how this process of loving means learning different ways of thinking–whatever those might be learning a shared language, inventing a form of trust, accepting the utter abandonment of yourself to the other person, etc. That does not get rid of the question of social class, but it displaces it. And if you look at the book from that angle, something very surprising happens: it's as if Parkin's class difference were the best way for us to talk about male/female relations today, about a fact that is fairly notable in the current era, which is that men often feel inferior, in a position of weakness in regards to women–or just not good enough.

Physical Love Scenes

I was afraid of messing them up, of course. They are difficult scenes to film. But if you work from the principle that each one of them is an integral part of the narrative, that they build the story, each new scene being a new experience for Constance, there is no reason for it to be repetitive.

The circumstances are very different each time. And logically, their treatment in the film is not the same. The first and third scenes are in real time, just like the other scenes between them. The idea is to get as close as possible to a reconstruction of the present moment, to give the sense that the scene is taking place here and now, before our very eyes. It seemed important to me to show everything that goes on between them before, during and after lovemaking. I wanted to try to show as well as possible the way it transforms them, and Constance in particular. Then, for the last three scenes, the film is no longer trying to reconstruct the entirety of what is happening, but rather focuses on a single facet of the experience, the relevant feature of what is going on between them this time. And each time it's very different. All these scenes lend a rhythm to the film and lead the two characters, slowly but surely, to a kind of liberation.

Shooting those Scenes

I wasn't thinking about anything but the practical matters: how to make it so that the two actors would be capable of playing those scenes on day X of filming; and how to be ready to film as well as possible. Marina, Jean-Louis and I worked hard several months before the filming to dissect their scenes in their entirety. It was very important for them to master the trajectory of their characters perfectly, so that later on-set all they would have to do was to play the moment of the situation, so that they would never be anticipating, so that they would always be as close as possible to the feeling of the moment. We created a working method so that they could get comfortable with each other's bodies, to find a shared language using the body. Love scenes are always scary at the moment you're filming them. It was important to demystify them ahead of time, so that when the camera was actually rolling, they wouldn't have too many inhibitions left and could abandon themselves to the moment of filming and to their physical sensations.

As for the filming itself, I had decided to shift to a quasi-documentary style for those scenes. I had a clear point of view on each of them, but as far as the actual camera's placement, Julien Hirsch and I always found it at the last minute. We looked for the place that seemed best for capturing what we were trying to show.

Lovers Decorating Naked Bodies with Flowers

This was a decisive scene for Lawrence when he wrote it, a sort of point of perfect fusion between him and his work. Every time I read it, I think it's sublime. I'd do anything to film it. Bodies and flowers. All of my personal stakes in adapting the book come together there. The scene is outwardly very simple. And yet, if you study it long enough, you realize that it keeps unfolding meanings, each one more fascinating than the last. First there is the situation: how, at some point, being a couple means taking pleasure in being silly together. And then there is the notion of the inversion between background and figure, the way in which the characters' bodies become the landscape and the flowers become the figure. It's also the moment when Constance, after having abandoned her sexual passivity, newly accepts being passive in Parkin's hands, but in an active way this time.

Up to then, you can sometimes have the impression that it is she who invents the man and his desires, and at that exact moment, it is he who invents her, shaping her, like a sculpture or a painting. It's two bodies, a camera, some flowers, and the crystallization of an entire film.

Nature and Change of Seasons

I love the connection between the story and the seasons in the book. It's a direct, nave connection: autumn is melancholy, winter is depression, spring is the awakening of the senses that leads to a kind of romantic plenty that corresponds to summer. So in the first place you can say about nature in the film that it is nature that accompanies Constance in her transformation. The seasons pass and visibly transform the landscape, the cycle of flowering takes place before our eyes, corresponding almost perfectly to Constance's mental landscape, her internal weather. At first you think that it's nature that comes first and rubs off on Constance's mood, or contaminates it. But bit by bit, the more she makes the forest her own, the less you know which comes first. And what if nature is only a reflection of her internal landscape And soon you no longer know which is the origin of which. And there is an incredible joy in this indeterminacy of origins. Just like when, in a romantic relationship, two people are so intertwined that it becomes impossible to know who is the source of what.

Age of Possibility

In Lady Chatterley, the question of potential goes along with the idea of inventing your own life. Today everyone feels powerless against the machine, which is occasionally, only half true. But I feel like it's good to say, or remind people, that there is still a place where you can invent, intervene, change things, and that's at the level of your own life. Here it's obvious that the characters' transformation changes the world they live in. With their bare hands, the two of them invent a new life for themselves, and in a way, a new world. I was very struck by something Deleuze said: “The system wants us to be sad, and we have to succeed in being joyful to resist it.” The political system today wants us to be sad and scared, so that our capacity for resistance will be totally dulled. Sadness and resignation crush us, inhibit us, and take away our ability to act. So the film is also a response to that, even if a very modest one. Inventing a new life can start with two people. And it's worth the effort, not only because, by contagion, it can change the world, but also simply because it makes you happy. And because then you are stronger to resist the whole system.