Pierrepoint--The Last Hangman
IFC First Take
Human Rights Watch INternational Film Festival
What is there about Lady Chatterley's Lover that keeps attractingfilm- makers? The obvious answers won't do: many other novels aresuffused with sex and have spicy reputations. For obvious cinematicreasons, it can't be the quality of Lawrence's prose. Yet therehave been sixteen films of Lawrence's book, for large and smallscreens, and some of them come from countries other
than Britain--France, Italy, Japan, the Czech Republic.
And now there is another from France, called simply Lady Chatterley.The writer-director, Pascale Ferran, has (with two collaborators)adapted her screenplay from the second of Lawrence's three versionsof his book. (Understandably, Ferran has not used that secondversion's title, John Thomas and Lady Jane--not because of itsseeming blandness, but because John Thomas was, and still is, aBritish nickname for the penis.)
Ferran knew exactly why she wanted to do her film, as she makessensually clear. Evidently she found more resources for her view inversion two. There are elements in her picture that are not inversion three, which is the novel as we know it. I note only thathere the gamekeeper is called Parkin, not Mellors; and, unlikeMellors, Parkin was never a British officer in India. (In bothversions, however, he comes from a coal-mining family.) Ferranwanted to deal with passion. In her film sex itself is not thepoint: instead, it is the best way in which passion is expressed.There are no mere boudoir gymnastics here--sex is the manifestationof a greater force. Jean-Francois Revel said that passion consistsof seeing in the finite an infinity that doesn't exist. In thisfilm the lovers are seeking the impossible through the possible.The knowledge of that impossibility makes the scenes all the morepowerful. This is the core of Lawrence's novel, and Ferran hasunderstood it.
Lady Constance Chatterley, as we all know, is married to SirClifford, who was badly wounded in World War I and is nowwheelchair-bound and impotent. They live on his grand estate. Hestill manages the coal mine that he owns. He still loves his wife,and she is devoted to him, but the marriage is obviouslyincomplete. Then Clifford engages a new gamekeeper, Parkin.
Ferran has treated Connie's first glimpse of Parkin movingly. Thelady is walking in the woods near Parkin's hut, and suddenly,coming around a corner, she sees him from behind, naked to thewaist, washing himself. He doesn't know that she is there. Connie'sresponse is hushed but intense. She quickly retreats around acorner of the hut, bewildered by the flood of feeling yetparadoxically sure of what has happened in her. The moment isexquisite.
Naturally, Connie finds reasons subsequently to visit Parkin. Heknows why; she knows he knows; yet there is no flirting or flurry.The fire simmers in her, reticent and proper though she is, and hervery presence tells this knowledgeable man what is possible. Intime it happens.
Despite the plot differences from the third version, basically thesexual encounters between the lovers are the reasons for the film,as they are for the novel. Ferran has cast the two roleswonderfully. Marina Hands has the kind of beauty that makes aviewer eager to know her, to have that person in one's life. Parkinwas a bit easier to cast; still, Jean-Louis Coulloc'h is more thana run-of-the-mill strong, silent man. He seems to live in a garmentof experience, which he uses to protect himself as well as toadvance. Ferran has worked with these actors to make theirencounters both sweeping and faintly frightening. Yet the famousscene in which each decorates the other's nude body with flowers isdone with a sense of humor as well as bliss.
One element in Lawrence's story is, for me, still troublesome--thefact that he made Clifford a non-sexual husband. It seems anegregious excuse for Connie's love affair, a justification. Theauthor who wrote so fearlessly on so many subjects certainly knewthat a married person, sexually active in that marriage, mightstill have an affair, might still feel passion for another person.Clifford's impotence has always seemed to me Lawrence'suncharacteristic bow to middle-class morality.
Hippolyte Girardot gives all the flavor possible to Clifford.Francois- Renaud Labarthe's designs of interiorsare--pleasantly--what we expect, and Julien Hirsch's cameraunderstands their textures. Hirsch also deals well with the groundsand woods of the estate, the vitality of nature that surroundsthese two people wrapped in passion.
After Saint Joan has been burned at the stake in Bernard Shaw's playabout her, the executioner goes to report to the Earl of Warwick.The earl has not expected him and says, "Well, fellow: who areyou?" The dignified response: "I am not addressed as fellow, mylord. I am the Master Executioner of Rouen: it is a highly skilledmystery." A comparable professional pride runs throughPierrepoint--The Last Hangman, a British film that is based onfacts.
Albert Pierrepoint was appointed to his post in 1934, following inthe footsteps of his father and uncle; he resigned in 1956. (Thetitle of the film is catchy but inaccurate: hangings continued inBritain until 1964.) This account of his life, tautly directed byAdrian Shergold and photographed in masterly film-noir style byDanny Cohen, is essentially the account of a conflict--between theonly source of pride available to Pierrepoint and the harsh detailsof what he is doing. The wonder is that he was able to execute 608people and (according to the film) gave up only after being forcedto deal with a friend.
The whole strange project is sustained largely through theperformance of Pierrepoint by Timothy Spall (of TopsyTurvy andSecrets and Lies). Part of Spall's talent is in convincing us veryquickly, after our first glimpse of his fleshy, banal face, thatthere is an interesting man behind it. Juliet Stevenson, splendidas always, plays Pierrepoint's barmaid wife with no trace ofcharacter-slumming. Known, among other reasons, for her performancesin Shakespeare, Stevenson makes this barmaid a complete woman, notan instance of an actor's versatility.
Shergold renders the atmosphere of the executions chillingly enoughyet without exploiting the gruesome. A chief effect of these scenesis to remind us that Pierrepoint's profession actually exists,though the lethal means differ. Even in those countries wherecapital punishment has been abolished, there is always agitationfor its return. And there are always men who will do the job. Morespecifically, this film digs into the crevices of a man who, formost of his life, can find ways to smooth over the days betweenexecutions. (He does, indeed, have some ordinary work between hisspecial assignments.)
In his earlier days Shergold worked with Mike Leigh and has learnedmuch from him. The wonder is that Leigh, a director alwaysinterested in the social imbalances that society accepts, did notmake this film himself years ago. But Shergold has done the job.
Some good news brings us bad news. The good news is that theeighteenth Human Rights Watch International Film Festival hasarrived, and the bad news, unsurprisingly, is that those rightsstill need watching. This edition of the festival presentstwenty-four films from around the world who are doing this workwith anger and with love.
I have seen three of this year's films. Mon Colonel, a Frenchpicture directed by Laurent Herbiet, is the reverse of Pontecorvo'sThe Battle of Algiers. Set mainly in Algeria in the 1950s, this newfilm views the Algerian struggle against French occupation from theFrench point of view. It is not merely that French rights must besafeguarded: the presence of France in Algeria is seen as justifiedand in the long run beneficial. (Costa-Gavras, wizard of politicalfilms, collaborated on the screenplay, which we might suspect evenif we didn't know it.) The film begins in the home of a retiredcolonel, who had been a commander in Algeria. An intruder shootshim. The story then explains why it was done and who did it.Herbiet, who must know Pontecorvo's work, has deftly held up amirror to it.
Enemies of Happiness, co-directed by Eva Mulvad (of Denmark) andAnja Al- Erhayem, is a documentary about an Afghan woman. MalalaiJoya ran for parliament in her country's first election in morethan thirty years. Joya met all the opposition that she foresaw,and inevitably she received death threats while she was daring torun. She was elected in 2005. Her career is presented as asmall-scale epic of large-scale courage.
An American director, Steven Okazaki, made White Light/Black Rain:The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (It will be broadcast onHBO on August 6, the sixty-second anniversary of Hiroshima.) Thisdocumentary, says Okazaki, "is not about the rights or wrongs ofthe decision to drop the bombs.... It is about fourteen people wholooked up and saw a white flash." These fourteen, now of courseelderly, quietly remind us of matters we usually need to forget:that, in a war, there are human beings on both sides. (The theme,too, of Clint Eastwood's two films about Iwo Jima.) The film alsoincludes interviews with four Americans who were involved in thebombings and who in differing ways have lived with that knowledge.
This entire festival played in New York recently for two weeks, anda selection of twelve to fourteen films will be shown later thisyear in some forty cities. These programs will be available on DVDin the fall. For more information, consult www.hrw.org/iff.