The Marquis de Sade on Film
The notorious Donatien Alphonse Francois, a.k.a. Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), is many things to many people. For proof just check out the numerous cinematic portrayals of the man, which are as varied as the films themselves.
The Marquis de Sade was a legendary libertine, as enumerated in the innumerable biographies that have appeared over the years (my own favorite being the unique fictional-historical hybrid SATAN’S SAINT by WEREWOLF OF PARIS author Guy Endore). Sade’s taste for young prostitutes is well documented, as was his penchant for violent sex (the word Sadism is derived from his name) and the frequent prison spells that took up a large portion of his life. Sade’s fiction was widely censored in its time, and his classic novels JUSTINE, JULIETTE, PHILOSOPHY IN THE BEDROOM and THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM remain potent exercises in literary excess.
Cinematic versions of Sade’s fiction are legion (even though most--JUSTINE, BEYOND LOVE AND EVIL, SALO: THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM, etc--are extremely loose adaptations) while biographical films are nearly as prevalent, and range in nationality from Sade’s native France to England to Hollywood, U.S.A. You’ll also find a wide variety of film types mentioned below, from art house prestige to tawdry exploitation. As to what is the “right” approach I’m not sure I or anyone else can honestly say, although I can assert that some of the following films are definitely better than others!
The British made
(Full Title: THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN PAUL MARAT AS
PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS
DE SADE) appeared in 1966. As with most of the following entries on
this list, it’s anything but a straight biopic. It was also quite
influential in its insane asylum setting, a facet that characterized
nearly every Sade biopic that followed. Here that setting is the
Charenton asylum in the early 1900’s, where Sade is directing a play
with a cast of fellow inmates.
The AIP sponsored German co-production
DE SADE followed in 1969. It features Keir Dullea (coming off
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) as Sade in an incoherent mishmash of historical
psychedelia that tries, and fails, to ape the cinema of Federico
Fellini. The script was by Richard Matheson, who claims it was rewritten
against this wishes; for that matter, the entire film was apparently
reedited from its original X-rated version to its current incarnation,
which is hopelessly tame. The few striking images--a masked jury decked
out in red cloaks, a woman disappearing into her clothes--are deflated
by the cheap production design, dime store psychology and hammy
performances from Dullea and his co-stars, who include a slumming John
Jumping ahead two decades we arrive at
the French made MARQUIS (1990), which is, along with MARAT/SADE,
the most interesting and ambitious film of the lot. It’s an all-puppet
pastiche that ranks with cult classics like FORBIDDEN ZONE and MEET THE
FEEBLES in its defiant originality and gleeful outrageousness.
1997’s Roger Corman executive produced
DE SADE, by contrast, is trashy straight-to-video fodder through and
through (with no puppets, sadly). As played by Nick Mancuso, this film’s
“Divine Marquis” is a muscle-bound stud more in line with a Hollywood
action movie hero than an 18th Century French writer.
The American made QUILLS turned
up in 2000. It’s far from great, but at least boasts solid
performances from Geoffrey Rush as MdS and Kate Winslet (whose
post-TITANIC clout reportedly got the film made) as the servant who
smuggled Sade’s writings out of the Charenton asylum where he spent his
final years. The direction by the sometimes-great Philip Kaufman is by
turns deep and playful, but usually always compelling.