A Film That Makes Sex Scenes Look Like Works of Art

Netflix’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover updates the book’s treatment of sex, presenting the act as not just an erotic force, but a miraculous one.

Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell mid-embrace in "Lady Chatterley's Lover"

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence’s infamous 1928 novel about an upper-class woman’s extramarital affair with her gamekeeper, was considered so obscene that it was banned in multiple countries for years. But as much pleasure as the author took in describing, well, pleasure, he wasn’t distasteful, just bold for his time. When writing clandestine trysts, Lawrence detailed every motion, thrust, and caress with relish. He especially liked equating desire to a flame—a warmth that guided his titular aristocrat out of her ennui. Lady Constance “Connie” Chatterley’s sexual awakening, he wrote, was like a “curious molten thrilling that spread and spread.”

Netflix’s adaptation, which started streaming yesterday, takes a different route to illustrating lust. Unlike many previous onscreen versions, this film eschews the soft glow of Lawrence’s words for a more haunting aura. The director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre drenches her cast in a blue tone, transforming what could have been another titillating period piece into something more mesmerizing. The naked actors often look like figures from a painting—surreal and sumptuous rather than merely erotic. Seen through shaky-cam shots, Connie (played by Emma Corrin) and her paramour, Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell), appear as wild, breathless creatures. The film updates the book’s treatment of sex, presenting the act not just a “molten” force, but a miraculous one.

Connie and Oliver, after all, aren’t merely having an illicit fling. When the former arrives at Wragby Hall, the Midlands estate that her husband, Clifford (Matthew Duckett), has just inherited, she’s begun to fall out of love with him and with her privileged life. Clifford is paralyzed from the waist down after being injured in World War I, and he becomes dependent on her not as a wife, but as a nurse and an audience for his egotistical lectures. Their previous fondness is replaced by a brutal, cold intellectualism. Because he needs to produce an heir, Clifford callously suggests that Connie should find a mate to secretly impregnate her. When she protests, he encourages her to think of such a rendezvous as a “trip to the dentist.” In the face of Clifford’s growing cruelty—toward Connie and toward the workers at his coal mines—Connie grows ill and wary. She wanders the dark halls of Wragby like a living ghost, purposeless until she meets Oliver. In Lawrence’s book, her changed relationship with Clifford proves that the mind alone cannot sustain intimacy between a man and a woman. The movie pushes this idea further: Sex becomes necessary for the survival of Connie’s soul.

The approach is provocative, and its effect is perhaps akin to that of the novel’s first release: Readers were scandalized by Connie and Oliver’s untamed escapades in the woods, which blurred class lines and challenged England’s postwar, industrialist attitude. De Clermont-Tonnerre understands that the lovers’ behavior and Lawrence’s social commentary no longer spur much pearl-clutching, so instead, she surprises viewers by adding uncanny elements to her most explicit scenes. Gorgeous tableaus of Connie and Oliver having sex against tree trunks and in grassy fields shock for how dreamlike they appear amid the most grounded settings. At times, the score blends scratchy strings with static, a sound more likely to accompany a horror movie than a costume drama. Even the conventional setups—the pair in bed, legs and fingers tangled together—come with an eerie sheen, saturated in shadows.

One frame in particular has lingered in my mind, of Connie and Oliver reclining nude atop a bed of moss. The shot is sideways, so that the couple appear to be vertical, with the sky to the left and the ground to the right. As idyllic as the moment is, this world, the film suggests, is off balance—and tragically so. Connie has limited agency despite her station; though she finds escape with Oliver, he’s still her husband’s employee. Their relationship is impossible, given the rules of English society. Frolicking in the forests with flowers in their hair does not make them free.

But the shot also highlights a message in Lawrence’s work that has been clouded by salaciousness in most other adaptations: The stakes are high, not just because of the class boundaries, but also because of the liaison’s postwar setting. A little hope has blossomed—like a verdant blanket of fresh moss—between two people, despite the surrounding hardships. “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” reads the opening line of the novel, an admirable but painful outlook Lawrence attributes to Connie. These characters are caught in an era of transformation; a grief-struck England was becoming even more mechanical and less pastoral, while dealing with high levels of unemployment and debt. Passion, however pure, could risk throwing off the level-headedness needed in such turbulent times.

De Clermont-Tonnerre’s film threatens, in some scenes, to become a tad too romantic. Oliver can be coarse and mocking in the book, but in this version, he’s gracious while servicing Connie until she climaxes, making him the ideal object of her affection. Connie, meanwhile, is playful toward her lover from the start, seducing and teasing him; she’s the opposite of the “quiescent” woman Lawrence describes during the characters’ first encounters. Late in the film, as the plot forces Connie and Oliver apart, a friend observes that what has happened between them “is a love story.” The line is overly saccharine and far too on the nose.

Still, the otherwise thoughtful adaptation entranced me. Corrin and O’Connell embrace their liberated, sensual characters with a vitality that contrasts magnificently with the film’s moody atmosphere. The blue-hued images force the eye to adjust, to look more closely at the lovemaking, and to find unexpected insights in those enigmatic tones. These scenes are not just hot, but also sublime for the way they portray the characters’ intense yearning. The film captures the subtle arc Lawrence was tracing beneath his “obscene” scenes: Lady Chatterley’s gentle, gradual enlightenment. His working title for the book was Tenderness. It’s only right that his story should be retold with the same delicate touch.