Suffused with earthy carnality, Ken Russell’s 1969 adaptation of Women In Love uses D.H. Lawrence’s at times overwrought prose as license for flights of extravagant lyrical reverie: musical interludes, bizarre interpretive dance sequences, copious sex scenes, and—perhaps most famously—a naked fireside wrestling match between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. Every emotion is amplified to a frenzied 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, practically groping the actors’ bodies. 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.
Set in a dreary Midlands mining town, the film explores the emotionally complex and sexually intense relationships of two free-spirited couples. Enigmatic schoolteacher Gudrun (Glenda Jackson) strikes up a romance with aloof mine owner Gerald Crich (Reed), while her sister, Ursula (Jennie Linden), falls for Gerald’s best friend, Rupert (Bates). Though the film preserves the novel’s post-WWI setting, its heady atmosphere of romantic exploration and existential restlessness comes straight out of the free-love ’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 counterposed to rigidity, repression, and authority.
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. Russell’s restless, roving camera—reminiscent of the similarly unmoored cinematography of Polish directors Wojciech Has and Andrzej Zulawski—creates a swirl of intensity, while everything blurs together into a frenzy of outrageous emotions and hysterical behavior. 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. After which, 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. There’s a fine line between lyrical reverie and campy excess, and the filmmaker is all too happy to blur that line completely with this passionate, high-camp spectacle. Women In Love provides an opportunity to enjoy the director’s trademark floridity without the bloat and portent of his later provocations, such as The Devils and Tommy. If Russell is ultimately out of his depths attempting to chart the ever-shifting terrain of Lawrence’s characters’ psyches—an eventual falling-out between Gerald and Gudrun comes off as abrupt and arbitrary, for example—he nevertheless vividly captures their emotional extremes.
In particular, Women In Love’s handling of 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 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.