Benoît Jacquot’s Sade, released in Europe the same year as Philip Kaufman’s Academy Award-nominated Quills, has finally found an American distributor. Much recent buzz and reviews of the film contend that it offers a refreshing new angle on the libertine and focuses on philosopher Sade, a man of intellect and wit rather than voracious sexual appetites. Not a bad idea, for while many literary and philosophical investigations of the mad Marquis have celebrated his political allegories, his challenge to religious orthodoxy and hypocrisy and his complicated linguistic and mathematical ruses, film treatments of the man have mostly found in him a vision of spectacularly sadistic excess, and have been either overtly moralizing or sophomorically prurient. Even in Quills, which is largely sympathetic to the Marquis, Geoffrey Rush can’t help but play the icon as a fiendish and gleeful libertine.
Here, the Marquis de Sade (Daniel Auteuil) is played as a reserved aristocrat sympathetic to the Revolution and dedicated to his mistress Marie-Constance Quesnet (Marianne Denicourt) and her pre-teen son Charles (Leo Le Bevillon). The intent of the film is clear, to make Sade seem sympathetic, to normalize him so that we can consider what his pornographic tableaux might be getting at. Again, not a bad idea. Unfortunately, this makes for a rather dull movie.
Sade draws attention to a number of theoretical postulates and historical conditions that should temper any understandings of the Marquis, and for this I generally applaud the film. On the theoretical side, the film distinguishes between the production of art (or pornography, if you prefer) and the subjectivity of the artist. Not all, if any, art reflects the personality, behavior, etc. of its creator. So, even if the author known as the Marquis de Sade wrote sordid tales of debauchery, cruelty, and violation, this does not mean that the man who wrote those tales behaved similarly in his own life. This is something neither the aristocrats nor the republicans of Revolutionary France seemed to understand. Of course, this is not to say that “we” understand this any better today. Just ask Eminem.
The historical contingencies Sade that works to illuminate are the specific political excesses of the First Republic. Whereas Quills simplistically portrayed Sade set against Christian orthodoxy and hypocrisy, Sade offers a much more complicated story, where the writer resists the mutually implicated church and state. The film further complicates this conflict by depicting the changing relations of the French church and state in the changeover from aristocratic to republican rule.
The film opens with the transfer of Sade, arranged by his devoted mistress Mdme. Quesnet (whom he calls “Sensible”), from the Prison Saint Lazare to the privately run Couvent Picpus. This former convent is now operated by the landowner Coignard (Philippe Duquesne) as a cushy “prison” for aristocratic “traitors” to the First Republic. Even after the Revolution the rich are still rich and can save themselves from the guillotine by paying enormous amounts of money to be incarcerated at Picpus. It’s like a Homestead Program for white-collar criminals today.
Of course, Sade goes to great lengths to establish how in these chaotic times, and with relations between church officials, decadent aristocrats and upright republicans anything but certain the one thing they could all seem to agree on was the “evil” of the Marquis. Accordingly, Mdme. Quesnet must go to great lengths to keep Sade in the relative safety of Picpus, including become the mistress of Fourneir (Gregoire Colin), one of Robespierre’s (Scali Delpeyrat) top headhunters and ideologues.
What is most politically pointed about Jacquot’s film is its critique of state power, as well as its placement of the Marquis within what has become known as the Terror, the short life of the First Republic under the rule of Robespierre when public executions were quick, efficient, and daily. Because of this, the grounds of Picpus are set to be converted into mass graves for the executed traitors. The “jailed” aristocrats must dig these enormous trenches and help fill them. Thus we find the Marquis watching wagonloads of bodies and dismembered heads arriving at the prison, and an assembly line of inmates unloading the human remains into the ditches. Against the violence, cruelty, and caprice of the First Republic, Sade’s obscene writings seem pretty tame indeed. Or at least I think this was supposed to be the point (and it’s a good one). Unfortunately, the scene is handled so awkwardly that it plays more for comic effect than political commentary.
This is the general problem with Sade. It tries hard to make intelligent connections between the Marquis de Sade and his (and France’s) historical circumstances, but is undercut time and again by awkward direction, not to mention a soporific pace. While the film tries to escape the many easy clichés about the syphilitic libertine, nonetheless, many of those clichés and stock characters creep in everywhere. So, for instance, we have the virginal Emilie de Lancris (Isild Le Besco), whom Sade must inevitably seduce and then violate by proxy, through the working-class gardener Augustin (Jalil Lespert); and the mincing aristocrat Chevalier de Coublier (Vincent Branchet), whom Sade must sodomize. Yet while these characters seem merely recycled from any number of treatments of Sade, they are still preferable to the “new angle” of Jacquot’s film: the Marquis de Sade, dedicated family man.