How Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre Crafted Lady Chatterly’s Lover for 2022

For the director, ideas of sexual freedom and women empowerment fit right into today’s cultural narrative.

by Patrick Sproull

A still from 'Lady Chatterly's Lover'

There have been an abundance of adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence’s once-scandalous tale of love and lust across class barriers, but Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s take hits different in 2022. We’re currently in the midst of a cinematic sex drought—multiplexes are clogged up with certified hotties but there’s little in the way of on-screen consummation—so Lady Chatterley’s Lover, coarse and sensual and unfailingly romantic, feels like a bracing tonic.

De Clermont-Tonnerre, the French filmmaker and former actor, broke out in 2019 with her debut feature, The Mustang, an elegant character study about an incarcerated man who forms a bond with a wild horse in a prison rehabilitation program. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, her follow-up, feels like the mature English cousin of The Mustang, with de Clermont-Tonnerre delivering another emotionally fraught drama about two creatures finding each other at their lowest. With Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell as her very committed leads, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is that increasingly rare beast: an authentic, lavishly crafted period drama.

Speaking from her home in Paris, de Clermont-Tonnerre chatted with W about her affinity for Lawrence’s novel, how she shot the film’s sex scenes, and how Once Upon a Time in the West influenced her filmmaking.

What was your relationship to the book before joining this project?

I read it in my teenage years and studied it at school. I remember, at that time, there were a lot of things that didn’t quite resonate. The script came at a time when we were locked in during the pandemic—it was April 2020—so I read the adaptation from David Magee, and I read the book again. The themes of nature, imprisonment, freedom, and female pleasure resonated with me, mainly because of the context, but also because I’m older and more experienced, and I can understand how it’s impactful today, more than before.

Those were actually the themes of my first feature, The Mustang—nature, imprisonment and freedom—but I felt the settings were very different. I also liked the fact there was a female character; to be in her point of view and to reshape the film into her story, to really get under her skin and have this immersive feeling, was exactly what I wanted to bring to this adaptation.

How do you feel your personal vision of Lady Chatterley’s Lover differed from what Lawrence presented in the book?

I read a biography of D. H. Lawrence, and he said Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a celebration of sexuality, a revitalization of human beings’ nature. The excitation of sex should be a vital need and something beautiful and pure, nothing shameful and dirty. That was scandalous at the time because it was like a democratization of sexuality—and most importantly, he addressed for the first time in literature female sexual pleasure. For all those reasons, it was banned. People were definitely not ready to see a woman being free sexually and free in general.

His statement is still so vivid. We are going through times today with Roe vs. Wade, the revolution in Iran, where the body of the woman is the subject of political tensions. That, for me, was what I really wanted to express with this version. Obviously, there are other important themes like class and social pressure, but I felt the idea of a woman being free sexually, being free in her body, and the importance of touch and sensuality, was necessary for a modern audience.

Emma Corrin in Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Courtesy of Netflix

What I enjoyed so much about your Lady Chatterley’s Lover is just how sexy it is. There’s a real lack of eroticism and sexuality on-screen and, as you say, human touch and connection. What’s your perspective on the state of sex and romance on-screen?

I thought [the sex] was very faithful to Lawrence because this is what he always wanted to bring. I felt I needed to bring this as well, but as a revitalization of a human being, as something that heals. Especially the scene where they’re running under the rain naked—there’s something so erotic and so liberating. When I was reading the script, I had forgotten that scene, and I was like, “Well, this is what I want to experience and explore, and bring this ecstatic freedom.” The actors felt the same way.

I saw that you used intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien—who’s worked on Normal People and I May Destroy You—for the sex scenes.

She helped us dive into those scenes and face them as an emotional narrative, to be shameless and not awkward about details. She was there to explain and guide us through it and make it authentic. We had two weeks of rehearsals—Jack, Emma, Ita, the cinematographer [Benoît Delhomme] and I—and we found the right shapes, the right emotions, the best choreography.

Emma and Jack were really involved in this process. It cemented our trust and bond. [The process was] desexualized, which was important—because when you’re rehearsing the scene, there’s always a fine line between reality and fiction, and it can be awkward. As a former actress, I have to say that I was on set a while ago and I had to face this kind of scene. No one would tell me anything and guide me through it. I was petrified. It’s not only that it’s not pleasant, but you also don’t do a good job because you are not fully prepared in a safe space.

There’s always been something of a debate over whether Connie and Mellors’s relationship is more physical or emotional. How do you personally see it?

The choice of Mellors as an actor was very important because it’s easy to portray him s the man in the woods who’s muted and a bit gruff. I think Mellors is much more than that. In the book you can tell he’s educated, he’s been a lieutenant and he decided to be a gamekeeper, which in that society would [suggest he’s of] a lower class. But he gave up on society and humanity and he’s just happy being alone with his dog. Lady Chatterley and Oliver Mellors recognize they are made from the same wood. It’s what really attracts you to someone. They are very similar personalities and beyond class and status, there’s something that connects immediately. These emotions lead to a physical expression, which defines their relationship as a celebration. It is first an emotional love story about two lonely people who feel the need to connect to exist.

Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell as Connie and Mellors.

Courtesy of Netflix

How did you find your Mellors and your Connie?

It’s easy to do an adaptation where you feel stuck in a decade, and I wanted Connie to be believable today, to be accessible. Emma has this very strong energy that’s unexpected and surprising, and they always keep you in the here and now. That’s a very strong quality for an actor. They’ve crossed the decades—they’re believable in the ’20s, believable today, believable in the ’50s, and they have a way to speak, a way to deliver their lines that’s out of the classic route.

Emma and I talked a lot about who should be Mellors. I knew Jack’s work, I loved it, but I realized he was perfect when we met. He has this quality of being extremely tender and very sensitive. Luckily, they had so much in common, they had the same sense of humor. They became good friends and had this real camaraderie.

I loved the casting of Joely Richardson as Mrs. Bolton, as she herself was a former Lady Chatterley in the BBC’s ’90s adaptation. Was that an intentional bit of casting?

It was not, actually. Kharmel Cochrane, the casting director, mentioned her—Joely knows the material so well, she’d explored it in the past. When we talked, she brought this version of Mrs. Bolton that was very her own, filled with strangeness and ambiguity. There was something about her going back to the story through another door that I thought was special. It also made the relationship between Connie [and Mrs. Bolton] even more special and true.

For the Freeze Frame column, you chose Once Upon a Time in the West, specifically the final duel between Harmonica, played by Charles Bronson, and Frank, played by Henry Fonda.

It’s kind of a ballet. You see what actually created the Western language; a very tight shot on the eyes, then you go back to the wide shot. It’s choreographed, it’s epic, it’s operatic. The music of Ennio Morricone is so emotional, as well as the tension of what’s going to happen at the end of the duel. The way [Sergio Leone] takes in the landscapes, and the placement of the camera, creates this vertigo of being trapped in an emotion. It’s one of the scenes that makes me the happiest.

You can really see the impact of that scene on The Mustang in particular, which is like a modern Western in many ways.

Completely. The language of going from close to wide is something I love to use. I tried to use it also in this film because there’s something interesting about the jarring feeling of the editing. There’s a sense of space and largeness of nature that’s impactful.