“Women In Love”
Friends and Lovers
“Women in Love” is set in 1920s England, where free-spirited artist Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and her schoolteacher sister Ursula (Jennie Linden) make the acquaintance of lifelong friends Gerald (Oliver Reed) and Rupert (Alan Bates). The foursome attends a picnic in honor of a pair of newlyweds, who put a damper on the activities by drowning in a nearby lake. Evidently unscathed by this tragedy, Gerald and Rupert participate in a nude wrestling match later that evening. Gerald marries Gudrun, Rupert weds Ursula, and the four go on a Swiss honeymoon. The holiday is marred by infidelity and sudden death, leaving Rupert to wonder aloud just what it is that makes men and women behave as they do.
From the opening scene, tracking the Brangwen sisters Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden) as they leave their house and make their way through a perfectly recreated Nottinghamshire pit village, director Ken Russell takes a full-tilt approach to bringing D.H. Lawrence’s novel alive on screen in all its earthy, sensual and often ludicrously overblown glory.
The film is suffused with earthy carnality and uses Lawrence’s overwrought prose as license for flights of extravagant lyrical reverie: musical interludes, bizarre interpretive dance sequences, copious sex scenes, and the naked fireside wrestling match between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. Every emotion is amplified to the extreme. People don’t simply kiss in this film; they attack each other. They furiously rend clothes and claw at each other’s flesh, all while Russell’s camera barrels in close. Where Lawrence attempted to probe the complexities of modern sexual psychology, Russell is more interested in using the novel’s sexually charged characters as figures to be placed into a series of fevered tableaux.
The film explores the emotionally complex and sexually intense relationships of two free-spirited couples. Though the film preserves the novel’s post-World War I setting, its heady atmosphere of romantic exploration and existential restlessness comes straight out of the free-love movement of the’60s. As the two relationships develop in parallel, each character attempts to balance their thoughts and feelings with their animal urges. Earthiness, impulse, and spontaneity are counterpoised to rigidity, repression, and authority. Everything blurs together into a frenzy of outrageous emotions and hysterical behavior.
Larry Kramer’s screenplay articulates these ideas mostly via breathless arguments in which characters shout their sexual philosophies at each other, but Russell is too busy chasing ecstatic revelation to give any of these attitudes much consideration. Gerald elaborately compares eating a fig to cunnilingus. Rupert tears off his clothes and sprints through the forest, rubbing his naked body with pine trees and wheat. Gudrun taunts a herd of cattle with a strange dance and Gerald asks her, “Why are you behaving in this impossible, ridiculous fashion?” One is tempted to ask the same question of Russell.
But that would surely be pointless, because the impossible and the ridiculous are exactly what Russell is after here and in all of his films. The way the film handles the homoerotic charge between Rupert and Gerald conjures the burbling intensity of a desire that dare not speak its name. In a film chockfull of fervid sexuality, the duo’s buck-naked grappling session stands out for its rugged, plainspoken eroticism. The film suggests that the two men’s relationship problems fundamentally stem from a sublimated love for each other, one they can’t quite bring themselves to admit is sexual in nature. This aspect of the film was, of course, likely sharpened by Kramer, a playwright and vocal gay rights activist who would go on to found ACT UP, and whose script suggests that as free-spirited and unrepressed as these characters imagine themselves to be, they still don’t know who they really are.
With this film, audacious filmmaker Ken Russell came onto the international stage, drawing on the psychosexual radicalism of D.H. Lawrence’s classic novel to shatter taboos in his own time. Alan Bates and Oliver Reed’s naked wrestling scene is legendary. It has kept this film on the bestseller list for years and now the Criterion Collection brings us a positively gorgeous Blu ray re-mastered version.
DVD Features include:
Two audio commentaries from 2003, one featuring director Ken Russell and the other screenwriter and producer Larry Kramer
Segments from a 2007 interview with Russell for the BAFTA Los Angeles Heritage Archive
A BRITISH PICTURE: PORTRAIT OF AN ENFANT TERRIBLE, Russell’s 1989 biopic on his own life and career
Interview from 1976 with actor Glenda Jackson
Interviews with Kramer and actors Alan Bates and Jennie Linden from the set
New interviews with director of photography Billy Williams and editor Michael Brad sell
SECOND BEST, a 1972 short film based on a D. H. Lawrence story, produced by and starring Bates
PLUS: An essay by scholar Linda Ruth Williams