Hands in glove

A sensitive take on D H Lawrence recalls the heyday of French cinema

Lady Chatterley (18) dir: Pascale Ferran
Knocked Up (15) dir: Judd Apatow
Knocked Up (15) dir: Judd Apatow

If you heard there was a candid new French film of Lady Chatterley's Lover, you would suspect the worst, right? But Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley is unlikely to give much satisfaction to either the dirty mac brigade, if such a thing still exists in the internet age, or those dissenters who have wielded the whip in the long-running D H Lawrence backlash. In her search for the novel's essence, or possibly just to avoid adapting all that post-coital chit-chat about class and labour, Ferran has gone back to Lawrence's more understated second draft, John Thomas and Lady Jane (Lady Chatterley's Lover being the third draft), and filmed that instead. The result has all the blasé joy and looseness of the nouvelle vague.

Ferran treats cinema like she invented it, throwing together home-movie footage, hand-held camerawork and out-of-the-blue voice-overs. For all that, her Lady Chatterley is a tranquil work that handles its characters' passions with a quizzical coolness. The plot you know by now: Constance (Marina Hands) is traipsing around the country estate of her paralysed husband, Clifford (Hippolyte Girardot), when she happens upon something sweaty in the woodshed - namely the gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h). The pair begin an awkward affair, which Ferran documents initially with a watchful camera that keeps noticing hands: there's a moment of silent elation when Constance slips her hand into Parkin's weather-beaten gardening glove, and another when the lovers' hands brush against each other as they heave Clifford's wheelchair out of a rut.

Marina Hands is captivating as Constance, particularly in the scenes that show this forlorn, forgotten woman sparking to life again. You haven't seen bliss until you've witnessed her expression when the maid tells her that the daffodils are out early this year. "Daffodils, already?" she chirps, knowing this will necessitate another trip to Parkin's shed, but also seeming genuinely enraptured at the thought of tripping through a copse with armfuls of flowers. Hands has already won a César award for her performance; if Lady Chatterley doesn't herald her transformation into an art-house icon of Anna Karina-esque proportions, I'll eat my weather-beaten gardening gloves.

Lawrence considered calling the novel Tenderness, which would be an equally appropriate title, believe it or not, for the comedy Knocked Up. Alison (Katherine Heigl) has landed a new job as a TV presenter. Ben (Seth Rogen) is a dopehead whose career ambitions amount to collaborating with his housemates on a soft-porn website. Alison has no intention of seeing Ben again after a boozy one-night stand, until she discovers she is pregnant, and begins to wonder what life might be like with a stoned layabout for a partner.

I couldn't understand at first why this sitcom premise was stretched out to two hours. But I think I've rumbled it. With its baggy structure, predictable story arc and tireless running gags, Knocked Up has built-in feel-good appeal; it's like hanging out with a bunch of strangers who can't wait to share their stupid jokes and wacky impressions with you. Even as I was watching the film, I could imagine happily dropping in on it again in a year's time on a hotel or in-flight entertainment channel.

Individual bright spots leave you feeling you've been lightly tickled - I adored the scenes with Alison's employers (Alan Tudyk and Kristen Wiig), who ask her to lose weight without actually asking her to lose weight. And it's no hardship being in the company of the beatific Rogen: the film's unspoken joke is that he strongly resembles a big, curly-haired baby himself, albeit with stubble and a bong. But a comedy about unplanned pregnancy with only the vaguest allusion to abortion and a reliance on gender stereotypes cannot in any way be called modern. However, the innocuous, eager-to-please tone means that Knocked Up is a film at which neither your pro-life grandmother nor your pro-choice sister will take umbrage.

Pick of the week

12:08 East of Bucharest (15)
dir: Corneliu Porumboiu
The fall of Ceausescu is the starting point for this thoughtful, offbeat Romanian drama.

Surf’s Up (PG)
dir: Tom Hunsinger, Neil Hunter
Zesty British rom-com that puts a spring in your step.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?