August 22, 2007 5:22 pm

English classic, French triumph

Before Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley begins, all the ducks are in a row for critics to shoot at. Could anything invite more derision, or promise more cross-cultural canards, than another French screen frolic based on D.H. Lawrence’s sexy classic? (The first was a steamily inane 1981 stripteaser starring Sylvia Emmanuelle Kristel.) Though the new film draws on an earlier version of the lady-and-gamekeeper novel, a draft Lawrence titled John Thomas and Lady Jane, that is no protection. The 168-minute length, and the eye-candy lead actress Marina Hands, would seem to increase the possibilities for louche lunacy.

But the motto of cinema is “You Never Know”. Lady Chatterley is the best French film of recent memory. Fearless of cries of “Frangleterre”, it steps straight into Lawrence’s mansion in the English Midlands, where a Francophone Constance and Clifford Chatterley (Hippolyte Girardot) convince us as imaginary Anglos, while the changing seasons – from dripping scarlet-and-gold autumn to cuckoo-voiced spring – are gorgeous enough to be scenic tender anywhere.

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Hands’s heroine is a young beauty, going wintry under the influence of crippled Clifford’s talky soirées with war veteran friends. (Every soundbite here seems to chime with her wasting ennui. “No vital organ was hit, yet he died instantly...”) Jean-Louis Coulloc’h as Parkin the gamekeeper – who became Mellors only in the novel’s last version – is a sturdy miner’s son with a heart of anthracite, slow to ignite but incandescent once started.

The brilliance of Ferran’s approach is her slow stalking of Lawrence’s themes. Yes, the story is about sex. But before that it is about loneliness, the daytime silence of the great house broken by solitary footfalls or creaking boards. After that – after the first frenzied couplings – it is about the birth of intimacy. The sex is done as montages, erotic jigsaws of visual detail (a hand unfastening a garter, Constance’s face transfixed in a kind of perplexed rapture). Later there is the mutual flower-arranging scene on his and her genitals, followed by some al fresco nude romping. Again, these could be laughable – or prurient. Again, they aren’t. For we are caught up not by carnality but by a sentimental education, by the fastidious charting of the way a touch, a word, a look, a surrender of the eyes or senses unlocks the emotions, unfreezes the heart.

The actors seem to be discovering the story along with us. Hands takes a cliché – awakening sexuality – and gives it a frisson of the new. She makes rapture seem at once transforming and a little terrifying. Coulloc’h, no pin-up but a bunchy yeoman whose mind as well as body seems initially muscle-bound, acts as if knots were being untied, one by one, in his soul. The lovers’ last dialogue scene, in which they try to work out a lasting sexual-conjugal pact, is not only touching but catches a pre-echo of the revolutionary. In this tale set in England in the 1920s, we hear the brave, early, industrial whir of the making of sexual equality.

Knocked Up is a “Beauty and the Beast” variant for modern times. Modern times, in California, means an age in which every eligible blonde looks as if she has stepped off Venus’s half-shell (the heroine here is played by Katherine Heigl) while every uncultivated man of a certain girth (Seth Rogen from 40-Year-Old Virgin) resembles a gone-to-seed surfer dude. Rogen, a blue-eyed barrel of stoned benevolence, spends his non-working time – which is his whole time – pipedreaming with pals a website for movie nude scenes. It’s to be called “fleshofthestars.com” and will reveal how fast, to the minute, the first unclothed scenes arrive in everything from Birth of a Nation to Deep Throat.

Rogen’s life is like a crash site, a UFO crash site, his friends resembling uncouth aliens peering through a sci-fi haze from joints or hookahs. Somehow he meets TV reporter Heigl and makes her pregnant in a night of drunken condomlessness. Then come the movie’s main giggles, as two youngsters and their support groups meet, try to be polite, try to share the same planet. It is like a “let’s be friends” effort by Guelphs and Ghibellines, or Bloods and Crips.

Very funny for an hour, Judd Apatow’s script and direction are finally mugged by a gang worse than any of these. The feelgood moralists, who terrorise all parts of Tinseltown, make sure we end up in the maternity clinic with pledged troths, brimming eyes and gooey friends and relatives surrounding the scream-feast delivery. Shame about the sign-off. Much fun to be had in the set-up.

Seraphim Falls is a dashing western that dashes our hopes, similarly, near the finish. The rules of this game are simple, its exact object more opaque. Two Irish actors (Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson) are required to don American accents and slog across changing scenery, from snowy peaks to simmering flatlands. Neither must provide a clue, till the end, as to why Neeson is chasing Brosnan. The former rides with paid cronies, who get picked off ingeniously by the latter, a seeming trapper wrapped to the gills in beard and hides and fur.

In the high country, the icy landscapes keep the suspense piping hot. There are ambushes, sudden bullet ballets and desperate self-surgeries over fires in the deadly cold. Down in the valley, it’s a decrescendo. The spring-like weather brings out the cuckoos – including a weird cameo from Anjelica Huston as a medicine vendor (although one colleague argued after the show that she was an angel of death) – and the flashbacked revelation of the inciting incident is a fizzle. As the story self-destructs, we are left with the majestic scenery, photographed by John Toll, and the pleasure of two good actors from one side of the Atlantic stretching themselves to seem convincing on the other.

The New Argentinian Cinema coughs up Born and Bred (Nacido Y Criado), rather as a growing kitten might cough up its first furball. There are dazzling images in Pablo Trapero’s tale of a tormented car-crash survivor (Guillermo Pfening) trying to forget the inferno in which he left a wife and daughter. The main dazzlements are the swooping aerial shots, backed by throbbing music chords, over the snowy plateaux of Patagonia. Here the hero has taken refuge as a worker on a remote airstrip, in the way eastern Atlantic movie heroes used to hide their guilts or sorrows in the Foreign Legion.

Scenery apart, the film is penitence at 24 frames per second. Two or three lively minor characters fail to compensate for the trudging pace and monotonous protagonist, a posturing Jesus at the film’s centre. Every scene is an emotional crucifixion, every day a new resurrection for the same Passion to begin all over again.

Britain offers Sugarhouse, which comes off the stage and crashes on the screen, with all landing-gear failing. Ashley Walters, Steven Mackintosh and Andy Serkis try to act their way out of the wreckage, as three drug-dealing chancers ill-met by daylight in a ruined warehouse. Dominic Leyton’s script from his play starts as a flicker of fancy words and ends as a verbose fireball consuming all reality.

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