Women in Love (1969)

*. A lot of the time, when I’m in the process of preparing these notes, I make an effort to go back and read the source material that a movie is based on. I didn’t do that in this case. I read D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love many years ago and I don’t remember it being a real favourite. As I recall, it went on far too long to make a kind of obvious and obsessive (though not very persuasive) point.
*. At that time — I believe this was in the late ’80s — Lawrence was definitely on the outs. There was a graduate course being offered just on his writing (he wrote a lot) and it was cancelled because it didn’t have a single student sign up. Even high school students I knew would casually disparage him as dull and preachy.

*. It wasn’t always thus. It certainly wasn’t thus in the 1960s. It was only in 1960 that the full text of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been published in England, after a landmark trial (the same thing happened, at much the same time, in the U.S.). And yet by the 1980s I think most people who made the effort found Lady Chatterley to be almost unreadable.
*. Women in Love (the novel) was controversial too, though not as much so. And the film also stirred some feathers, mainly for the nude wrestling scene. Today, however, the sensational elements seem more silly than anything else. When Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) gives his discourse on the fig (something not in the novel but drawn from a poem by Lawrence) I think most people cringe or just roll their eyes.

*. How fair is this? Obviously our frankness about sex has changed quite a bit. But I think Lawrence’s diminished reputation is the result of more than this. I think it has more to do with his sermonizing and philosophical crudity.
*. In his paradoxical combination of preachiness and shock value Lawrence probably couldn’t have had a better interpreter for the screen than Ken Russell, a director who shares those same qualities. I think we can see them coming together in the depiction of Hermione.
*. Hermione is apparently based on Lady Ottoline Morell, and is played by Eleanor Bron who looks even more like the original than Alan Bates looks like Lawrence (and Bates really does look a lot like Lawrence). She was a famous society hostess and considered a bluestocking, making her a target of Lawrence’s satire. Russell has also been accused of misogynistic views in this regard, adding to the fit I mentioned.
*. And so we get the interpretive dance scene, something I don’t believe is in the novel, presented just to make Hermione seem even more of a pretentious fool. But is she any more pretentious in her faux Russian ballet than Lawrence/Russell in their condemnation of her? Here is how Birkin breaks up with her immediately after the dance: “You can’t bear for anything to be spontaneous, can you? ‘Cause then it’s no longer in your power. You must clutch things and have them in your power. And why? Because you haven’t got any real body, any dark, sensual body of life! All you’ve got is your will and your lust for power!” That’s not pretentious?
*. The match between Lawrence and Russell works on other levels as well. Both have a tendency to hammer away. With Lawrence this is done through language, with Russell it’s visual. I like the rhyming of the drowned couple with Birkin and Ursula’s post-coital positioning, but it’s a connection that feels dialed up to 10. Subtlety is not Russell’s game. He’s not going to let you miss something like this. Just like he’s not going to let you miss the Matterhorn looming over the skiing parties. It’s remarkable how many shots he manages to shoehorn it into. Why? Because it’s there. It’s big. It’s dramatic. And I guess he couldn’t think of anything else to use as a backdrop.

*. Another memorable visual moment comes in the mirror scene. But again it has the feel of something clever that we’re being asked, or demanded, to notice. Is this sort of look any more mannered than Hermione’s dance?

*. I do like the cast. That Glenda Jackson, who had done very little film work before this, manages to dominate everyone else so much is quite something. I was only left as baffled as Gerald at Gudrun’s fascination with the insect Loerke (Vladek Sheybal). Something just isn’t coming through there.
*. Actually, I think a lot doesn’t come through. It may seem a strange thing to say, but for all its flights of rhetoric and visual bombast, I find this to be a surprisingly passionless affair. Maybe it’s because the only real love we witness is that of Rupert for Gerald. But I think there’s something else that’s missing. Even Gerald’s final hate fuck of Gudrun made me wonder why he was bothering. And his death/suicide is cold but bland as well. He just walks off into a postcard and lies down to go to sleep. What are we supposed to feel about this? I don’t feel anything at all.
*. Listening to the two commentary tracks on the Criterion DVD (by Russell and screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer) I was struck by how uninformative they were. Neither of them had much to say and I came away thinking that was significant.
*. As with the novel, certain set piece scenes stay with you. Gudrun’s dance in front of the cattle. The naked wrestling match. But, again as with the novel, they tend to grow in the mind or memory. Women in Love is a movie (and a novel) I appreciate more after the fact. Watching or reading it I’m not as impressed. The fault, I think, lies not so much in the message as in the manner in which it’s delivered. But then weren’t both Lawrence and Russell a bit suspicious of art? As the great love of their lives, she was a savage mistress.

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