It's the other Marquis de Sade film of 2000, after Quills
. This one though, authentically, is French. It's clearly the less rich and interesting of the two, but it's still a pleasant movie with an attractive central performance and a stronger historical perspective.
Authenticity is the biggest sticking point, or at least it was for me. On the one hand, its digressions from the historical record are fairly minor and I like its attention to detail. The actual events of the plot are fictional, but no one dies when the history books say they didn't and they're getting little things right like Robespierre's tinted glasses and his broken jaw when they eventually guillotine him. They're not taking the piss, unlike Quills
. Personally I found it quite interesting to see a French film set during the French revolution and it shouldn't be surprising that it feels truthful. They're very interested in the politics of the time, for instance, and exactly how this scandalous aristocrat and atheist managed to keep his head on his shoulders.
It's based on a novel, by the way. I think that's reflected in the character of the two films. Quills
feels like a stage play, heightening its drama and themes almost to the point of artificiality, while this movie is more low-key and philosophical.
However its portrayal of the Marquis de Sade himself is risible. Of course I don't know the period in great detail and for all I know his bad press was overblown and this is how he really was, but it feels wrong. According to this film, de Sade was a sensitive philosopher and a politically correct New Man with whom you'd trust your daughter and maiden aunt. He's never less than a gentleman. The twinkle in his eye is that of a lovable uncle and he actually has far less sex than everyone else in the film. You'd be shocked to your core should anyone suggest he were a disgustingly obese rapist and paedophile, for instance. Is he ever scary, even for a millisecond? Heaven forbid! Why, the man's an angel!
As I said, I don't know the truth. I'd have to dig into it. However I might argue that it almost doesn't matter. The Marquis de Sade is one of those historical figures who's more of a symbol than a man, remembered for what he represents and what of ourselves we can see in him. I loved Quills
, after all. However even if one concedes the theoretical possibility that this film's version of the Marquis de Sade might perhaps not be twaddle, to me it felt ludicrous. If this film were a magazine interview, it would be a powder-puff article in Hello magazine.
Apart from all that, it's a really nice film.
For starters, Daniel Auteuil is wonderful as de Sade. Forgetting everything I've been saying and treating this as mere fiction about an entirely invented character, Auteuil's really enjoyable in the role. He's putting a lot into it. He's sensitive, thoughtful, intelligent and caring. He's mischievous enough to be interesting to watch, but philosophical and self-aware enough that he won't make an idiot of himself or deliberately hurt anyone. He'd be quite good as Doctor Who, actually. Even the "sexual social worker" side of things that unfolds near the end is being done sensitively enough that you could almost show it to children, although they might have a few questions about why de Sade asked the nice man to whip him.
The point of the story, I think, is its contrast with contemporary society. Revolutionary France is being portrayed as deeply conservative, with Robespierre passing anti-atheism laws and de Sade's life being in danger because of naughty books. They claim to uphold morality, but they're guillotining almost at random. However at the same time, sex in this world is being consistently portrayed as being used as a bargaining chip or tactical maneuver. Pregnant women don't go to the guillotine, so a young girl might save her life by losing her virginity. de Sade's life is saved by his mistress allowing a revolutionary deputy to sleep with her. A ruined banker lets his wife take a rich lover. A fat, ugly old aristocrat takes a toy boy. de Sade though is the opposite of all that, being liberal at a time of bloodthirsty fundamentalism and encouraging sexual freedom and self-discovery instead of bedroom horse-trading. The girl he helps, for instance, isn't beautiful. There are some gorgeous women in this film, but Isild Le Besco is rather horse-faced and that's presumably a deliberate casting decision, to make de Sade's actions seem altruistic and noble instead of just those of a dirty old man.
The most extreme scene, surprisingly, doesn't involve de Sade at all. That revolutionary deputy I mentioned makes certain assumptions about de Sade's mistress's bedroom tastes in a scene that's emotionally charged.
I liked this film. It's good. I don't believe it for a moment, but then again Quills
isn't exactly a documentary either. Just put aside any notions you might have about the real Marquis de Sade, such as him being an inflammatory rabble-rouser and almost certainly dangerous, and enjoy Auteuil's reinvention of him. It's nice to look at, excellently acted and overall a pleasant, liberal little fable in an interesting historical context. Surprisingly little nudity, but you can't have everything.
I don't expect to be seeking out the third 2000 screen Marquis de Sade, although I'm mildly interested by it being an episode of a Bruce Campbell TV series. Does this mean I'm about to start watching de Sade films, then? Hmmm. I'll sit through a lot of tripe, but Jess Franco...