None of this matters and nothing was lost in translation. In fact, thinking about how it might have seemed in English, I believe doing it in French is the better way. It would sound overly quaint now to ham up the differences of speech and the formalities of social interaction between master and servant. What we're left with is the human and the physical drama. It felt at times like a heterosexual Brokeback Mountain (2005). Two lovers say very little to each other but communicate physically and with silence and looks. Their passion and sexual attraction for each other is elicit and dangerous for both of them should they get caught.
When Clifford, a wealthy factory owner, returns from the Great War, he is paralyzed from the waist down. His dutiful wife, Constance (Lady Chatterley), becomes his nurse, but this soon wears her down. A local widow, Mrs Bolton, comes to stay with them to nurse Clifford in her stead. Constance, lonely and loveless, wanders around the grounds of their country estate. One evening she is sent to give the gamekeeper, Parkin (Jean-Louis Coulloc'h), a message from the cook and sees him naked to the waist washing behind his hut in the woods. Something is triggered. In the following months, she gravitates around Parkin, finding a wonder in the natural scenery that is his domain. Their interactions are at first awkward and stiff. They are overly aware of their relative social status. Eventually their relationship develops into an affair that invigorates both their lives. But both of them know they are breaking social codes.
The director, Pascale Ferran, marshalls impeccable performances from his cast. Coulloc'h is rustic without being uncouth: the gamekeeper, Parkin, is an intensely private man but he is no idiot. Hands is wonderfully uninhibited. She is beautiful but has the skill to say so much with her body and face even when she has no lines to speak. There is often no need for dialogue. The sex scenes are erotic without being uncomfortably or unnecessarily graphic.
The film is shot in beautiful countryside throughout the seasons. The camera lingers to breathe in the air and conveys that awakening sense of wonder in the natural world that comes from being in love: noticing the beauty of the sunlight playing on the undersides of leaves, of an eagle circling above a field, fresh water trickling from a brook.
Ferran explains some of the reasons behind basing the film on the second version of the novel in a statement on the film's official site:
D.H. Lawrence wrote three versions of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The novel known by this title is the third version; the one Lawrence considered definitive and which he published at his own expense in March 1928, a few months before his death.
[...] between each version, Lawrence would put the manuscript aside for several months and go on to something else. When he came back to his project, he didn't work from the previous manuscript to modify it, but entirely rewrote a second version. And later, he rewrote the third version as well. Therefore, certain plot points and circumstances are common to all three versions, but entire passages are not strictly similar and no dialogue is identical. The characters themselves, the novel's four main characters - Lady Chatterley and her husband Clifford, the gamekeeper (whose name changes depending on the version) and Mrs. Bolton, Clifford's nurse - vary significantly from one version to another. As a result, we are dealing with three independent versions, each one coherent from the first page to the last.
[...The second version, published by Gallimard under the title Lady Chatterley et l'homme des bois, published in English as John Thomas and Lady Jane] is simpler, more direct in dealing with its subject, less tortured. The book is more focused on the relationship between Constance and Parkin, the gamekeeper, and the two characters themselves are quite different. For example, here Parkin is a simple man who logically should have been a miner, but who chose to be a gamekeeper in order to escape life in society.
In Lady Chatterley's Lover he is an ex-officer in the British Indian Army who has chosen to live as a hermit. His culture and origins make his relationship with Lady Chatterley less scandalous, however. In a way, intellectually, they are practically from the same world, which explains how they can discuss together what is happening to them.
In Lady Chatterley et l'homme des bois, they don't discuss things, they experience them.
(Source: http://www.kino.com/ladychatterley/, then follow links to About the Film/About.)
The film is somewhat episodic, but the inter-titles and occasional voice-overs ensure the changing of seasons and circumstances dovetail neatly.
Nugget: a surprisingly accomplished adaptation of a notorious novel. All of the pitfalls I had been expecting were avoided. In French with English subtitles.