It's the film of a Tony Award-winning stage production, directed by Peter Brook and starring the same cast who'd played the roles on Broadway. I get the impression that they didn't make any changes at all for the movie version.
It's a historical about one of the Marquis de Sade's stage productions in the asylum at Charenton, starring himself and his fellow inmates. I got my hopes up when I saw that the script had apparently been translated, but unfortunately these aren't the unfiltered words of de Sade himself. It's a stage play by German playwright Peter Weiss, with the full title of "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade". It's very head-driven. It's essentially a long discussion of revolution, capitalism, absolute equality and other such abstracts, but livened up by:
(a) being presented by lunatics in a madhouse under the direction of de Sade,
(b) the historical setting of post-revolutionary France, in which de Sade's opinions are explosive and directly attacking his well-bred audience
(c) the play-within-a-play, in which de Sade is putting himself head to head with Jean-Paul Marat, a Bolshevik-like revolutionary thinker (but of course more than a century earlier than the actual Bolsheviks) who was murdered in 1793. It's great seeing these two going at each other. It's all verbal rather than physical, but still you needn't expect any straw men. Both de Sade and Marat are given plenty of space to sell us their philosophies and it's a surreal experience to see these two radical extremists by turns trumping each other in scary opinions.
I don't think it quite works in the end, mind you. Everything you can point at is excellent and the actors are doing bravura work, but on a more abstract level, the outer layer of the onion isn't really pulling its weight. I was impressed by de Sade's play-within-a-play, but the audience and their relationship with the physical space is a bit abstract. The chaos at the end is just chaos. It doesn't mean anything. I didn't care. I like the shot where we see that de Sade approves, mind you.
It's like Artaud or Brecht. There's a chorus of four inmates singing in clown-face make-up, while a fifth inmate plays the narrator. Admittedly I'm not aware of de Sade in 1806 having foreseen that kind of theatre, but you can't say it doesn't feel true to the man.
You're really here for the cast, though. Patrick Magee, Ian Richardson, Michael Williams (husband of Judi Dench), Glenda Jackson... Magee won a Tony Award for his role here, while Jackson was nominated for another. What makes these performances unique is that they're playing lunatics who are themselves acting on stage. Thus on the one hand, these are meticulous, precise performances that bring tremendous clarity and intelligence to this talky material. They're very English, actually. English theatre has a reputation for producing actors from whom everything is controlled and filtered through their heads. Above all else, Peter Brook and his cast are serving Weiss's intellectual arguments, which is clearly the right decision since that's the play's overwhelmingly dominant element.
However that's all happening under the waterline. On the surface, they're madmen. None are professional actors. They're capable of going to sleep on stage or of trying to rape their co-stars in mid-speech. Jackson is the one who takes this the furthest. I found her fascinating. Look at the way her character's opening speech is at once clumsily amateurish and yet beautifully clear in how it conveys Weiss's dialogue, followed by a song sung with such elegant transparency that you could use it in a class for language learners.
These lunatics are, despite glitches, superb actors, by the way. Imagine them as badly trained dogs. They might not be very good at doing what you want them to, but by goodness, do they believe in what they're doing. They're devoured by their roles. One gets the sense that for them, when they speak, the fiction becomes real. They scream, they get hysterical and the prison governor (Clifford Rose) is frequently having to tell de Sade to calm everyone down. Thus, for instance, Michael Williams is doing a superb job with his narration, while at the same time running a coach and horses through its rhyme and rhythm.
I don't know if I'd choose to watch this again, but it was a fascinating experience. It's an acting tour de force, while at the same time being all about Weiss's intellectual arguments. It's a lacerating debate, especially for de Sade's contemporary audience, but at the same time Marat's militant principles are clearly resonating with 20th century left-wing thinking as well. "I believe in the revolution." It's a communist vs. an anarchist, essentially. Both are as hardcore as you can get, with Marat's bloodthirsty puritanism (as portrayed here) bearing comparison with Lenin's. Meanwhile de Sade writes a song in praise of general copulation (acted out by the whole cast), attacks his audience and goes out of his way to spit venom on the church (e.g. the anti-Lord's Prayer). He thinks real knives are more amusing than stage props. I want to see a real performance of de Sade's work now.
"I am a mad animal."