it has the perfect title. It's about the Marquis de Sade, but only in the sense that he's a central character. Really it's about writing. This isn't a de Sade who's commits obscene criminal acts, but instead one who's locked up in Charenton asylum and is merely writing about them. It's his lifeline. He spews forth smut, so obsessively that he's capable of self-harm if denied of the means to do so.
This is surprisingly good. It's interesting, especially compared with the lurid but empty sleaze you'd expect of, say, Jess Franco's assorted Marquis de Sade films. This on the other hand is adapted from a stage play. It's not really contributing anything new to the age-old debate of art vs. censorship, but I still enjoyed following its arguments.
The first thing it does that's interesting is to ignore the artistic worth of what's being censored. No one here is claiming that de Sade's work sells for its literary qualities. The only person to engage with it on that level is Joaquin Phoenix's Abbe du Coulmier and he thinks very little of its characterisation, plot, themes and prose. No, the guy's simply writing filth. De Sade would claim that he's challenging people's worldviews, holding up a mirror to a corrupt world... and of course also giving people a stiffy. (That's important.) To be fair, it certainly does change people. A convent girl discovers herself through reading it. For Kate Winslet's character, it's her surrogate emotional life. Smuggled manuscripts are wildly popular in the outside world and sell like gangbusters. Similarly there's a scene where de Sade writes and puts on an obscene play satirising Michael Caine's appalling Doctor Royer-Collard, which hits the target so well that it splits it in two.
Pitted against him are the forces of decency. Joaquin Phoenix is good and kind. Michael Caine is despicable, a hypocrite and the embodiment of everything hateful about censorship. Whatever anyone might say about him, it couldn't be enough. Normally you'd have to say that the script is stacking its arguments, yet what Caine is attacking here is about as censorable as anything ever written. De Sade's stories even at one point appear to inspire a copycat crime, although it's clearly not that simple. This makes for a strong debate. If you're going to try to dramatise the issues surrounding censorship, this is how you do it.
Leaving aside all this intellectual debate, the film is also dripping with quality actors and was Oscar-nominated for Leading Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Art Direction and Costume Design. To start with the obvious headliner, Rush's Marquis de Sade is interesting. He's not just meaninglessly vile, but instead: (a) a pervert who takes a childish delight in shocking people, (b) an artist who pours his madness and his pain into his work as his only release from reality, (c) "something of a dissolute rock star holed up in the Ritz Carlton." The latter was the director's suggestion. That's a lot in one character, but Rush is doing it all and more.
However that's not to say this is a one-man show. Kate Winslet has a crucial role, more than holds her own with the heavyweights and looks good in a tight corset. Can I say that she looks more buxom than she did in Titanic? No? Whoops, too late. Joaquin Phoenix is arguably the lead character and he's bloody good too, albeit perhaps a bit of a twat because special "pleather" shoes had to be made for him because leather would have gone against his vegan principles. The weirdest one though is Michael Caine. I love Caine. He rules. I'm always happy to see him, but he's not exactly transforming himself, is he? He's playing a monster who rapes his underage child bride and stands back to allow a sex killing... and yet you like him! He's Michael Caine! I honestly can't think of anything significantly worse than what his character does in this film, but after a fashion he still comes across as charming and sympathetic. Is this deliberate? Was he choosing to undercut the role, or is he simply incapable of not playing himself? I don't know, but it's odd.
He's still great, though.
The director is a name worth remembering, by the way. Kaufman doesn't have a huge body of work considering how long he's been in the industry, but he was Oscar-nominated for his script for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, directed an Invasion of the Body Snatchers and helped write Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Historically, it's bunk. Firstly de Sade's smuggled work wasn't particularly outrageous, instead being straight novels and plays that he hoped would be performed and were instead mostly rejected by publishers. His most extreme material had been written years earlier. His fate is completely different from what we see in the film, while Kate Winslet's character was really a thirteen-year-old (and de Sade's lover) and Joaquin Phoenix's was a four-foot-tall hunchback. By this time, the real de Sade was also grotesquely obese. There's more, but I think you get the idea. This isn't a biopic. It's a pseudo-historical drama that's using iconic names as inspiration rather than trying to portray them in documentary style, the better to explore its chosen themes of writing, censorship, sex, art, pornography, mental illness and religion. Sounds fair enough to me. It's not as if they're trying to say the Americans are the ones who cracked the Nazis' Enigma machine or anything.
There were actually three screen Marquis de Sades in 2000. One was in a TV episode of something, but one was a French movie (Sade)
that sounds quite good. I might look it up. Oh, and Paul Verhoeven was considered to direct this film. The mind boggles.
Overall, I thought this was pretty cool. It's certainly not just Franco schlock. The acting's great, while it's so strongly built around its themes that it's entertaining just to see them being developed. Caine's hypocrisy in particular is epic, although I was disappointed not to see him get his just desserts in the end. Admittedly you can't say the film doesn't kick him in the teeth, but those "just desserts" I was talking about would have been something along the lines of public sexual torture followed by the guillotine. I'd be interested in knowing what a pro-censorship audience thought of the film's arguments, by the way.
"Are your convictions so weak that they cannot stand in opposition to mine?"