A forbidden romance. Steamy trysts in the woods. Shocking nudity and language. Believe it or not, we're not describing a scene from the latest season of Bridgerton or revisiting 50 Shades of Grey. No, those explicit moments can be found in a novel from the late 1920s, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book deemed so obscene that it was banned in the United States and the U.K. until the '60s.
The novel tells the story of Connie, the titular Lady Chatterley, a married woman who engages in a torrid affair with the gamekeeper on her husband's estate. And when it comes to said torrid affair, Lawrence did not hold back, using certain four letter words and explicit descriptions that shocked readers at the time.
But this is 2022, and even though there would seem to be little that could shock a reader or viewer now, a new Netflix adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover finds there’s still plenty of territory to explore when it comes to sexuality, especially a woman's sexuality. "It's such a rich book, with all the complexity of class, and social pressure, and female pleasure, freedom, so I would say that you can really choose, pick your main goal to achieve. And mine was really to talk about a woman who takes ownership of her body and, through this, it is going to lead her to freedom, but it starts by accepting and controlling her body," director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre tells A.frame.
Clermont-Tonnerre's updated take on the story stars Emma Corrin as Lady Chatterley, and Jack O’Connell as her lover, Oliver, and holds true to not only the novel’s sexual content, but the deeper emotions behind the racy scenes. In a conversation with A.frame, de Clermont-Tonnerre expands on the political power of a women embracing her sexuality, the male and female gaze in cinema, and the other themes of the novel that are often overlooked.
A.frame: The novel is so infamous from its time. How much inspiration did you take from the book, and where did you take more liberties for a more modern audience?
The screenplay was adapted by David Magee. And his adaptation was really good. It was still three characters, equally important. And I would say that the suggestion I made for the script was to tell the story through Connie, through the female character and to really be into her emotional experience and tell the stories through her point of view. So what I thought was my 2022 version.
And as you mentioned, the story's very focused on her pleasure, her agency. How do you feel you captured that through the female gaze in the movie?
Actually D.H Lawrence made the statement that was very avant-garde and very modern at the time, that sexuality is pure and beautiful, and it's not shameful and dirty, and it should be celebrated. And it's part of life and it's a vital need. And I think the point was the female body, the subject of so many political tensions, should be freely accepted sexually. And I think that Emma and I, we wanted to express through the film an ecstatic freedom, then go through nudity, eroticism, sexuality as a very natural component of life. And, in that way, I think that there's a real political statement in this film wrapped into a romance, which is very relevant with what we are going through right now with Roe v. Wade, with what's happening in Iran. It's always about controlling women's bodies.
And it is so frustrating and so crazy that we're still there today. So I feel like [that's] what's the essence of this book… Obviously there's a beautiful love story, but the love story is based on this intense eroticism and centrality with this freedom in nature. There's something so pure, and so explosive, and so fresh, and that's what we really wanted to focus and to express.
There is a lot of discussion about the male gaze versus the female gaze. What do you think is a key difference when it comes to those approaches?
I think it's about sensibility. There are men like Ingmar Bergman, who wrote amazing female roles and I think that he has the sensibility to really talk about women. So I wouldn't say that men are not able to have a level of sensibility that women have. I don't think that's true. I think that what was maybe more personal to me, and what I wanted to really focus [on] is the female sexual pleasure and the female centrality, and that's obviously something that comes from experience and from knowledge. So, in that regard, I feel that there's definitely more, I would bring more personal sensation to it, that maybe a man wouldn't get because he's not living in a woman's body.
But I would say I don't want to do a generality, I think there's very sensitive directors who capture certain senses, and there's a certain level of emotion. I think for this version, what I wanted to really focus on was the female character, and obviously her connection with pleasure, and sexuality, and body. And I don't think a man would've been able to talk about that precisely, I would say. So, to be specific, yes, you need to be a woman to talk about that female orgasm.
When it comes to the very intimate, sexual scenes, what's the key to directing them with your actors?
It was very important because this is really the heartbeat of the story, it's why the novel was banned, because of all the sexual content. And so, it was important to be explicit. It was important to be explicit but also to not be gratuitous, or redundant to the challenge in those scenes, that you needed to have a very strong emotion behind those scenes because they are there for a reason, they are there to push forward narration, to push forward the character's development. And they're very important to understand the connection between Connie and Oliver. So it's just not sexual content, it is like love story through sexual content. So it's important to make sure that, when you're going to shoot it or choreograph it, you understand the love story through those scenes. And you understand why there's something like cosmic and so unsaid that's happening, because you have two creatures made from the same mood and they know that, they recognize each other being from the same mood and that's very moving, it's very sensitive.
So we worked with Ita O'Brien, she's an intimacy coordinator. She comes from a dancing background, she's a choreographer, she understands body language so well. And we talked a lot about those things and what we really wanted to put as an intent behind them and we worked, her and I, about the shape of those things. Obviously everything was on the page and in the book, but just to make sure that we were very specific and authentic enough to really tell the story of Connie and the love story. So we worked with dancers so that they would just do very easy choreography, and then, just suggest some shape. And it was really helpful for me to understand what I needed. And the cinematographer was there so that we could talk about how we wanted to shoot it. And then, the actors came on in rehearsals and I suggested what I had in mind.
Then we redid everything together. They shared their ideas, and we talked about all the specificity and all the technicals about doing sexual scenes and being naked. And, 'What are we going to wear? How are we going to touch each other? Which part? And is that going to feel okay or not?' So, she's really taking care of all those details, which is so important because then, when you talk about everything, when you break the ice and when we start rehearsal, then there's something very much more natural, much more safe.
It was very playful. It's very amusing and all the weirdness, and the awkwardness of the situation is just taken care of. And it's such a relief because it's something that we have huge inspiration to do, and that's something I feel is right for a crew but also especially for the actors. They don't have to deal with those scenes by themselves because it's not their job.
I think it's like stunt scenes, you have a stunt coordinator so it feels natural and completely normal for the sexual scenes to have an intimacy coordinator. You make the work so much better because you're not trying to rush something, you're not trying to hide the elephant in the room, you're just like, 'Okay, this is what we want to do.' This is a very important scene, there's a real challenge to the scene. We're going to take the time to make it specific, and authentic, and to really have the time to work. And you need to have actors who are super confident and trustful.
They trusted each other a lot. We all did, together. We had that bond after those two weeks of rehearsals. And on the day when we were shooting, it felt so natural that it was kind of like eroticism was there. They were very comfortable with each other. We spent the time we needed and it just felt real. We were very precise, everything was really choreographed and controlled. And it was great.
The story was obviously very known for its sexual content, but in adapting it in 2022, did you find the novel to be as shocking as it maybe was at the time?
I mean shocking, yes. The puritanism that we are living in today, you definitely hit the same morality. Corseted morality. Moral confinement for people who actually are not comfortable with sexuality, and precisely a woman's sexuality. And they can see it under a very bad light. And the idea was to glorify it, and the book is glorifying it, and Lawrence was glorifying it. Obviously, it was scandalous at the time. And there's also the themes that are really important in this book as well. Class, and social pressure, and fitting into a society, and being... So that's also very brutal and violent. I think we are still really facing class issues, definitely, so it's very modern.
I don't think we are facing it as they did in the 1920s, but we are still very much under the pressure of hierarchy and patriarchy, of course. So it's a very important topic. I feel like, through Connie's trajectory, you really understand all those themes and how she actually frees herself from patriarchy, from class, from social pressure, from the gossips. And just puts everything in the garbage, and decides to be free, and sacrifices so much, her family, her friends, her status, her money, for love. And I mean it's always an example that you want to show that you want to remind people, because it's possible.
By Elizabeth Stanton