The Love of a Good Garden
It would be nonsense of course to say that French cinema doesn't attend to nature. A Day in the Country, Le Boucher, Milou in May, A Sunday in the Country, La Belle Noiseuse and of course Jean de Florette and Manon de Sources all utilise the rustic environment, and how can we forget Eric Rohmer's seasonal outings? Yet what about the recent adaptation of D. H. Lawrence's second version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, John Thomas and Lady Jane, set in England and yet filmed in French as Lady Chatterley? If we find it such an un-French film, even though all the characters speak the French language, and still not quite an English one, though it was filmed mainly in Sheffield, and is set in the midlands, what is it that makes it a liminal experience; what makes it a film that feels simultaneously French and English? Does it have something to do with presenting nature in an Un-French way, and yet not quite 'English' in its representation either?
So somehow Lady Chatterley doesn't resemble any of the French films just mentioned, and yet it doesn't quite compare with British adaptations of Lawrence like Women in Love, The Rainbow and Sons and Lovers either. It seems instead not so much to film an English landscape, as attend to it. It is in the very best sense of the term a horticultural film rather than a botanic one, or for that matter a landscapist work. In a Sight and Sound interview director Pascale Ferran explains that "Lawrence was an expert botanist and the book contains very precise descriptions of plants and flowers," and yet it is her following remarks that seem more relevant: "nature teaches us to live in harmony with ourselves and here it reflects the changes in Constance's character." There seems to be a subtle difference between botanic expertise on the one hand, and harmonic awe on the other, and perhaps we can bring this difference out by suggesting we have Ferran's horticulturist nature against Lawrence's botanic assertiveness and subsequently a combination of English robustness, and a French sense of tactility.
Maybe what we're saying then is that the horticultural and the botanic are two sides of the same gender coin: that the masculine Lawrence is botanic, the feminine Ferran is horticultural, but we needn't look for reductivist readings here, more exploratory psycho-geographic undergrowths. For what is interesting about Lady Chatterley is that it is essentially an anti-landscapist film, as if landscape were too bold and removed an approach to comprehend the characters' feelings, and most especially Lady Chatterley's. Where most British adaptations of Lawrence and other key writers of nature, like Hardy and Forster, absorb the landscape, feel obliged to respect it as a character in films such as Woman in Love, Tess, Jude The Obscure and Howards End, Ferran seems to understand that this isn't quite her sensibility, as if she knows that where the British have a long history of landscape work, and perhaps its master in Turner, France has a shorter tradition. As David Piper proposes in his book, The Illustrated History of Art, "the art of landscape was relatively slow to become established in France...landscape first remained firmly rooted in the tradition of Poussin - the ideal landscape conceived as a stage for an heroic story." Though "landscape wasn't officially accepted as a distinct category until 1817" this isn't to suggest France didn't quickly catch up - and in Piper's book there are works by Courbet, Millet and Rousseau that suggest a clear tradition out of which Ferran could have worked to capture the balance between an English and French sensibility.
So while we're trying to escape from the reductivism of masculine and feminine gender differentiation, so we're also trying to avoid clear national boundaries that would lead to cause and effect: that would lead us to assume that the filmmaker is working in a national style. Yet still we might feel the film is so interesting because it cross-pollinates the masculine and feminine, the landscape expectations of the British film, with the intimiste tradition of the French drama where insular feelings are more significant than external demands. Where an adaptation like Ken Russell's Women in Love contains a mythic dimension evident for example in the scene at the end of the film where Oliver Reed's Gerald goes out into the snow to die, as if swallowed up by the enormity of the Swiss landscape, Ferran's film ends on an intimate promise: that the gamekeeper with whom Lady Chatterley has fallen in love, Parkin, will come back if Connie ever needs him. Obviously we're dealing here with two very different books, but it is as though what Ferran's drawn to in Lawrence is not the mythical elements, or the elementally mythic, that concludes Women in Love with passages where "Gerald stumbled on up the slope of snow, in the bluish darkness, always climbing, always unconsciously climbing, weary though he was...He surged painfully up, sometimes having to cross a slope of black rock, that was blown bare of snow...Only it was not here, the end, and he must still go on. His indefinite nausea would not let him stay." What Ferran wants to do is domesticate, perhaps even tame Lawrence and this is where the horticultural aspect comes in: as if she was looking for a further cross-pollination by wondering what it would be like to make a Lawrence film that owed something to that in many ways un-English English writer Virginia Woolf. For if Lawrence is a great botanist, is Woolf not closer to a horticulturalist, if we think for example of her work in Selected Short Stories, like Kew Gardens, or In the Orchard? The first contains a passage such as "from the oval shaped flower-bed there rose a hundred stalks spreading into heart shaped or tongue shaped leaves half-way up and unfurling at the tip or blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface". In the Orchard: "Miranda slept in the orchard, or was asleep or was she not asleep? Her purple dress stretched between the two apple trees. There were twenty four apples trees in the orchard, some slanting slightly, others growing straight with a rush up the trunk which spread wide into branches and formed into round red or yellow drops. Each apple-tree had sufficient space. The sky exactly fitted the leaves."
This isn't botanic precision; much more intimiste expression. When we compare a passage from Lady Chatterley's Lover we feel far more assertiveness in Lawrence's presentation of nature: "Little gusts of sunshine blew, strangely bright, and lit up the celandines at the wood's edge, under the hazel rods, they spangled out bright and yellow...The first windflowers were out, and all the wood seemed pale with the pallor of endless anemones...". It is as though Ferran set herself the task of horticultural abstraction over botanical certitude, and was constantly looking for ways not so much to undermine Lawrence's approach, but to make it ever more tactile, immediate, domestic - it is no accident that in interviews she has name-checked that great director of recent haptic filmmaking, Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
For we should never forget that Lawrence's novel is a great domestic drama, a mnage a trois opened up by the class differences between Mellors (now Parkin) and Lady Chatterley and her husband, and the pristine domesticity inside the house and the entangled, knotty exteriors that are really Mellors' domain. But if writers like Michael Sicinski in Cineaste believe Ferran's film is "spatially inarticulate", it perhaps resides not just in being "tamed by the topiary gestures of the editing room", but tamed by Ferran's need to make intimate the world she shows us. Just as in her earlier The Age of Possibilities she focused less on the career ambitions of her young characters than the tentativeness of the possibilities in the title, so in Lady Chatterley she seems less interested in the assertiveness of either nature or sexuality than in the burgeoning possibilities in being, and a burgeoning that comes out of domestic limitation as she explores the psycho-physiological undergrowths.
Which of course could easily suggest a film close to clich: how many times have we seen women finding their sexuality through adultery? But perhaps while we need to think of adultery here as a domestic problem, the film's aesthetic freshness requires a solution that is not so anthropocentric. Connie (Marina Hands) isn't so much unfaithful to her husband, Clifford (Hippolyte Girard), with Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), but moves towards infidelity initially because of Parkin's facility and comfort with an environment that is not her own. She seems to fall in love with Parkin not as a subjective presence, but as someone fused and yet controlling the environment in which he works and lives. This is less a love that dare not speak its name, as a love which cannot readily be named. Ferran seems interested here not in the class differential but the difference between a woman who's been protected from nature and a man who's chosen to absorb it. Her inexplicability over and love towards nature may resemble the surprisingly Lawrentian Camus story The Adulterous Woman, where a wife in a staid marriage she feels she should have long since left, goes out into the desert and where "with unbearable gentleness, the water of night began to fill Janine, drowned the cold, rose gradually from the hidden core of her being and overflowed in wave after wave, rising up even to her mouth full of moans."
This isn't to suggest Connie's looking for, or finds, some cosmic orgasm, but if we focus too readily on the anthropocentric elements, then the story can feel stale, whilst if we feel Connie moving through nature and accept that the ravishment involved is always greater than Parkin's own charms, then the film creates a liminality between woman and the natural. It needn't be that nature is a metaphor for Connie's yearnings, as Catherine Wheatley in Sight and Sound seems to suggest when saying "Constance's affair with Parkin fulfilling her overwhelming desire to be a mother...Ferran can be overzealous in making this point: repeated shots of thawing snow, blossoming flowers and hatching pheasant chicks become somewhat tedious..." They would certainly be tedious if that is all they were, but this is Wheatley's projection onto Ferran's assumed intentions. It brings to mind Goethe's comment that "...for everyone will/Read out of the book only himself or will forcibly/Read himself into it, making the strangest amalgam." Better to trust, in this instance, the teller. As Ferran says, "I've always lived in Paris, but ten or 15 years ago I became a gardener and now to look after plants is very important to my life. So this adaptation gave me the chance to film nature." What seems to matter here is less nature as metaphor for pregnancy, than nature as well-being - the sheer pregnancy of nature.
After all, before falling for Parkin and nature, Connie becomes increasingly ill, with the doctor worrying about her health as the winter draws in, and it is not until the Spring when Connie goes out into nature that she starts to feel well-again. This is nature not as metaphor but multiplicity. Where pregnancy would once again suggest too readily the anthropocentric; multiplicity suggests a much greater and broader sense of hope than one's own swollen tummy. It's a common enough phrase to say that people fall in love with nature, but Ferran wants to suggest that is exactly what Connie does: she's almost saved by the love of a good garden. Yet this isn't of course a practical solution - a mastering of an environment next to the listlessness of domesticity. Connie is usually as passive and quiet in nature as she would be in the house with its hushed domestic sounds. But where the house suggests the motivated labour of servants and mechanical clocks, the garden offers the peaceful communion of its own nature. Anything too readily man-made, including the insistent need to become pregnant, would appear to exacerbate Connie's problems rather than alleviate them.
There appears to be in her a human anxiety that only the non-human can alleviate. There is an early conversation that Connie overhears where Clifford and a couple of friends discuss the atrocities of war, and Connie absorbs human reality to the detriment of her mental state just as she later absorbs nature to return her to well-being. As they discuss headless bodies and torn limbs, man quite literally becomes less than the sum of his parts, and we can even see Clifford's wheelchair bound status not simply as about a man who loses his legs, but about the very mechanical process by which he's able to function. There is a horrible human logic to the idea of a man becoming paraplegic through war weaponry and then being put back together again through modern technology in turn: first through a conventional wheelchair and then later through a motorized one.
In a scene late in the film, long after Connie has embarked on the relationship with Parkin, Connie and Clifford, now in his electric wheelchair, pass through the garden and surrounding forestry discussing the social rights of the worker. For Clifford they need masters, and their purpose is really use value, they're there to be exploited by the wealthy classes. Connie doesn't think this is fair, but where does she suddenly get her social conscience from? We can see this as an absurd scene where words are put into the mouth of a character who would have very little context within which to offer them, or we might suggest that it isn't even a social argument that Connie offers - that it is more a naturalargument. When she later sees coal-miners black-faced coming out of the mines, there would seem to be less a social context for her reaction than once again her seeing what the non-natural can do - when the mechanical imposes itself on the natural. It is as if Ferran is trying to find here a nave politics; and we might remind ourselves that just as France came later than Britain to landscape painting, so France was a much less advanced industrial nation than Britain into the 20th century. Has Ferran tried to see British nature through not just a woman's sensibility (Wheatley points out that this is the first female adaptation of Lawrence's novel, and believes "it is surely no coincidence that it privileges its heroine's perspective throughout"), but a foreigner's sensibility as well? At what price was Britain the most industrialized nation in the world, and is it fair for a character simply to feel this price not economically, but agriculturally and horticulturally, as an issue of land and soil, about a concern for the surface of the land and not what is underneath it?
This may once again suggest the Woolf-like aspect to the film; a dimension that would of course leave any politically motivated viewer tearing their hair out, where a sophisticated analysis of the situation would be so much more important than the nave approach: the socio-analytic botanist gets replaced by the physically poorly, domesticated nature discoverer. But this is what partially makes the film so fresh, and consistent with so many foreigner eye views not on films about Britain, but about the States. Where many non-British filmmakers who make films in the UK seem to be absorbed by the bourgeois conventions of the films they make (from James Ivory with Howards End to Shekhar Kapur with Elizabeth) there are many American films made by Europeans (Zabriskie Point, Stroszek, Paris Texas) that try to comprehend what America is in the process of losing. Here Ferran passes her eye over an England at the beginning of the nineteen twenties and wonders just how unhealthy Connie might have become if she hadn't managed to lose herself in nature, and for that matter how miserable Parkin would be had he been forced like most of his class to go down the mines instead of managing a country estate. Again, the conventionally politically minded might muse over the idea that the only way well-being in nature can be maintained is through privilege, through the glories of a country garden. Yet it is Connie who is more of a democrat than Clifford - who rarely ventures into nature and gives little impression that even as an able bodied man he did so. After all, Connie and Clifford were clearly together before his injury, yet as she discovers nature a third of the way into the film, and the film opens with Clifford's return from the war, this is obviously her discovering it for the first time.
So how can we propose 'natural 'democracy, or rather a sense of democracy where nature has a justifiable, even privileged place, yet without it merely being available only to the privileged? If we feel Ferran's film is a democratic work and yet has little interest in socio-politics, how can this be so? Gilberto Perez addresses the problem very well in The Material Ghost, in his chapter on the Straub/Huillet film History Lessons, where he opens with a quote from Aristotle: "Poetry, therefore, is more philosophical and a higher thing than history; for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular", and follows with a quote from Jean Renoir: "I tried to give the impression that the mud sticks when you walk in the mud and that the fog blocks your view when you walk in the fog." Perez concludes the essay by saying that in History Lessons, where a young man in the present interrogates the rich Romans of the past, "as flowers in a rich man's garden they represent privilege, seductive beauty, and their trembling in the wind represents the young man's resistance to that privilege and that seduction, the readiness to blow up that beauty we may detect in his stern countenance. But the flowers are beautiful in a way that does not belong to the ruling class alone." If Lady Chatterley is a democratic film it lies really in a combination of the Aristotle, Renoir and Perez quotes. It shares with Aristotle the belief that politics is history not being, and that to film nature, the immediacy of the world ( la Renoir), is an important act; and it is through this combination that a political aspect can come through in the Perez sense. When for example Parkin explains his background to Connie, and how desperately he wanted to escape the pits, we feel the natural world becoming politicised, we sense the awfulness of working down the mines not as a socio-political tragedy as we find in other mining movies like Germinal and Margaret's Museum, but as retrospective relief that Parkin escaped his destiny. For it isn't until quite late in the film that we realise the path not taken by Parkin, and it is then we see Connie going out into the mining community and witnessing the black faces of the coal miners as they come out of the pits.
Obviously Ferran isn't making a point about the socio-political conditions of early Twentieth Century England. Her knowledge of England is decidedly and openly limited. "I've only been to this country two or three times in my life," she said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, "and I don't even speak the language." But she is suggesting that political realization isn't always about political understanding so much as a perceptual affront, and an affront the viewer shares with Connie as we as viewers have been as unconcerned with the way Clifford makes his money as she has been: we haven't been given a perspective for the wealth until Connie goes into the mining community late in the film. What Ferran shows us is what Perez suggests History Lessons demands in the quote above. This is a beauty that belongs to oneself and to everyone, but not to someone. At the beginning of the film it is a beauty that belongs to Clifford but is not apparently utilised by anyone except Parkin who looks after the garden. Then the sickly Connie goes out into the garden and finds its properties of well-being, just as she comes across Parkin who knows exactly how to be in nature and also to use it for one's own immediate needs. Whether it is chopping wood or flower arranging on their naked bodies, Parkin and Connie don't possess nature, as one possesses land, as a botanist masters names, but they allow nature to possess them.
It is out of this self-possession from nature possessing them that the political must come. Undeniably by the end of the film Connie's consciousness has been radicalized, but it hasn't been pamphleteered into existence but organically released out of the freedom within nature that she feels, the socio-economic assertiveness of her husband that she grows to despise, and the desperate lives of the miners as she looks at their blackened faces coming out of the pits. Now when we earlier suggested that Ferran's film appears to be un-English approach to the issue of nature, it is partly because we sense the filmmaker would feel much more obliged to socialize or landscape the film: whether that be Jude and Women in Love's attempt to grapple with the broader social dimensions, or Powell and Pressburger's sublime landscapes as explored by Stella Hockhull. In Film International she says "just as the Neo-Romantic artists often drew their inspiration from the rugged, wild aspect of the British landscape, the 1940s films of Powell and Pressburger also highlight the Sublime aspects of nature through composition and use of light delving into the Gothic and mysticism."
Has Ferran searched out a place between the social and sublime, and made no less a politically suggestive film as a consequence? Has she removed the element of conflict in class division on the one hand, and the overly broad, almost sublime perspective of nature on the other? When we think of the wonderful opening of Jude for example we recall the width and breadth of the landscape; and even great, unconventional films about the worker's relationship with the land, like Bill Douglas's Comrades, brings out the idea of conflict over nature rather than our sense of it.
So let us propose Ferran's films isn't so much an adaptation of Lawrence as a reappraisal of the English country garden from an outsider's perspective that nevertheless gives us an insider's sense of tactility. Ferran's film is paradoxically ambitious in its fundamental lack of ambition: in its relatively apparent apoliticism and its refusal to explore the landscape as a grand visual experience, Lady Chatterley gives us something disarmingly fresh, perhaps invoking in a rather different way her initial response to Lawrence. "I almost fell off my chair when I first read it," she says hyperbolically in The Daily Telegraph, as if amazed at Lawrence's feminine aspect, a feminine aspect Ferran deliberately emphasises."I have got too much of a woman in me", Parkin says. Indeed.
© Tony McKibbin