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On slow burn, 'Lady Chatterley' makes D.H. Lawrence relevant

How do you make "Lady Chatterley's Lover " speak to an audience in 2007? D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel was once the hottest thing out there short of a Tijuana bible. The story of an upper-class woman bursting societal restraints to sleep with her husband's gamekeeper, the book was considered by bluenoses to be offensive on almost all levels, and it was banned everywhere. You couldn't even buy it legally in this country until 1959 .

Five decades later, every sexual act you can think of -- and plenty you can't -- can be found on the Internet. Again, how do you film Lawrence so he matters?

By emphasizing the one aspect of his writing that can still shock: his gentleness. Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley " is sensual in escalating degrees of heat, but the film's eroticism, which is substantial, is laid on with a caress. The movie's a slow-motion swoon back into Eden -- a nature documentary about humans -- and it's hypnotic.

Actually, Ferran isn't adapting "Lady Chatterley's Lover" but an earlier version of the novel. (Lawrence wrote three in all, starting from scratch each time; the third's the famous one.) "John Thomas and Lady Jane " lacks the class tensions and defensiveness of the other versions, and it isn't angry. The subjects are intimacy and the wonder of lust giving way to the deeper wonders of love. The author almost called the book "Tenderness " before naming it after his lovers' pet names for their private parts.

Marina Hands plays Lady Chatterley like a sleepwalker waking up. The actress has a wide face and high cheekbones, and her pre-Raphaelite curls are kept neatly tucked away. She's a Klimt painting waiting to happen. Only in the privacy of her boudoir does Constance coolly regard her naked body in a mirror, as if gazing at a wild animal in the zoo.

Her husband, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot ), is literally dead from the waist down, a paralyzed World War I veteran and civilized aristocrat whose mind is more on the mines he owns than with his wife. Constance takes long walks through the estate and slowly withers.

If you've read any version of the novel, it may take you a few scenes to get used to hearing Lawrence's words spoken in French. Nor does "Lady Chatterley" play fair by the rules of period films as laid down by several decades of Merchant Ivory . Ferran slows the pace to a dead crawl, and she resists the urge to smother everything with soundtrack music. The Lady needs to hear the birdsong, and so do we.

The approach pays off. A viewer's metabolism eases down, to the point where a scene of Constance dozing in a chair outside the gamekeeper's cabin seems magical for its quiet, observant length.

The gamekeeper is named Parkin in this telling, and as played by Jean-Louis Coulloc'h he's hardly the rude barnyard stud of the final novel. He's rough but sensitive, appealingly average in a lumpy and very French way. Above all, Parkin is as out of step with his times as the woman napping on his porch. They're equals almost from the start, and the couple's nearly wordless dance into the physical is both touching and unbearably sensuous.

The sex scenes in "Lady Chatterley" are increasingly explicit, as Constance moves from being a witness to her own pleasure to actively participating in it. (The film would make a pretty effective third date movie.) That slow burn is critical. Without it, the film's later rhapsodies -- the lovers adorning themselves with flowers, the nude frolic through golden bullets of summer rain -- might give an audience the giggles. Ferran has made an ode to nature, to Rousseau and the hippie dream of getting back to the garden, and aside from a few glowering miners in the background of one scene, the real world is kept at bay. The class wars stay outside the bubble.

In other words, the movie's almost entirely without dramatic conflict, startling for such a major work. What danger there is lives inside these lovers and is tamed by their discovery of it. That doesn't sound like much, yet "Lady Chatterley" creates its own vast and luxurious world, and its own sense of time, too. Would another director -- a male one, perhaps -- have hastened us along, eager to get to the "good parts" and the story's climax? Maybe not, but by the time Ferran brings us to the flowers and the summer rain, the lovers have earned them, and so have we.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

'Related'

Lady Chatterley

Directed by: Pascale Ferran

Written by: Ferran and Roger Bohbot , based on the novel "John Thomas and Lady Jane, " by D.H. Lawrence

Starring: Marina Hands , Jean-Louis Coulloc'h , Hippolyte Girardot

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 169 minutes

Unrated (nudity, explicit sexuality)

In French, with subtitles

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