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Witty, charming Marquis de Sade orchestrates a sexual initiation in the shadow of the guillotine

Friday, July 05, 2002

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

How are you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen the Marquis?


RATING: Not rated; contains nudity, violence and explicit sexual images.

PLAYERS: Daniel Auteuil, Marianne Denicourt, Isild Le Besco, Jean-Pierre Cassel.

DIRECTOR: Benoit Jacquot.



There is only one who really matters, and he is the title character in "Sade," now at the Denis Theater.

The movie takes place during the Terror following the French Revolution. The Marquis de Sade (Daniel Auteuil), now in his 50s, has been relocated to a country-club prison for those nobles who have not already fed Madame Guillotine's insatiable maw. He survives by the connivance of his mistress (Marianne Denicourt), who has taken up with a member of Robespierre's inner circle.

The other occupants of this gilded holding pen know of the Marquis' reputation and look down their noses at him. But they also continue to provide him with proof of his cynical view of man and God. The Marquis preaches the pleasure principle (especially if it involves pain), and here is the Vicomte de Lancris (Jean-Pierre Cassel) eyeing the comely Madame Santero (Jeanne Balibar). The Chevalier de Coublier (Vincent Branchet) attracts the attention of an old, ugly nobleman. In both cases, and as regards Sade's mistress, financial or other need obliges the sex.

But then there's the Vicomte's virginal daughter, Emilie (Isild Le Besco), with the body of a woman and the pouty face of an adolescent. The Marquis takes notice and Emilie notices back. She is alternately attracted by the older man's charmingly blunt self-assurance and repelled by his writings and ideas.

The moth keeps returning to the flame, horrified by the possibility of sudden death at the hands of Robespierre's fanatics and the thought that she might perish before she has really lived.

One cannot help but compare French director Benoit Jacquot's movie with the 2000 movie "Quills," another film about the Marquis, with Geoffrey Rush as the old reprobate. In that one he was nearly two decades older, flamboyantly mad and compelled to write his scandalous works no matter what the sacrifice, if only to show the authorities that they weren't going to stop him.

In "Sade," the Marquis is still very much in possession of his senses, his dark wit and his persuasive charm, although you get the impression that the spirit is more willing than the flesh. Auteuil, a solid yet subtle actor, plays to his strengths here.

But do we really want the Marquis de Sade to be subtle? If anything, it is Le Besco -- her haughty, pinched but striking visage displaying everything that Emilie is thinking and feeling -- who commands our attention.

Still, their cat-and-mouse game takes us just so far. The movie comes ablaze only when the Terror comes literally to their door -- Jacquot gives us images that would not have been out of place in a Holocaust newsreel -- and de Sade orchestrates Emilie's sexual initiation in a fairly explicit scene.

Even then, the Marquis plays the gentleman. Somehow, you expect more from the man for whom the word "sadism" was coined.

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