That De Sade fails is not at all surprising. What is surprising is that it’s a more interesting failure than you might expect.
This 1969 production was a very ambitious undertaking for American International Pictures, with a prestige cast and elaborate sets and costumes. It’s also artistically ambitious.
It suffers from having been an AIP production and having been made in 1969. Much as I love AIP’s movies in general a biopic on the Marquis de Sade was an impossible project for them. It was too self-consciously arty for the drive-in crowd (AIP’s main audience) but at the same time not quite arty enough for the art-house crowd. And in 1969 it was always going to prove impossible to resist the temptation to get all psychedelic with the Divine Marquis. He comes across as being a misunderstood hippie. He just wanted people to be free, man. And to live authentically. But the establishment kept hassling him.
Writer Richard Matheson intended the entire movie to be a kind of dream reminiscence by de Sade on his deathbed but while director Cy Endfield more or less sticks to this plan his approach is a little too linear and too conventional to really capture that dream quality that Matheson was after. The play-within-a-play aspect works reasonably well but might have been more effective had it been pushed a bit further.
Keir Dullea was a bold casting choice as de Sade. It doesn’t quite come off. He’s too young, doesn’t look dissipated enough and doesn’t have the necessary edge. On the other hand it’s an interesting performance, and in some ways I like the fact that he plays de Sade as an ineffectual and really rather harmless and silly intellectual. After all, whatever crimes he may have imagined in his writings the Marquis was in real life mostly harmless. This was a man who was sacked as a judge by the Revolutionary government because he couldn’t bring himself to impose the death sentence.
I also rather like the chaotic feel to the much-criticised orgy sequences. This was after all what the Enlightenment led to - a mindless orgy of violence and chaos that set Europe on the path to Buchenwald and to the gulags and eventually to the greatest horror of all, postmodernism. If you want to understand the failure of western civilisation then reading de Sade is a good start. He was the first of a series of European intellectuals who devoted their lives to trashing their own civilisation, paving the way for Freud, Marx, Foucault and the postmodern rabble in general. Don’t get me wrong, I think that in his own way de Sade is an important writer - he’s important because he represents the dark side to the Enlightenment.
The acting is generally of a very high order. Lilli Palmer is terrific as de Sade’s mother-in-law from Hell. She’s so civilised and yet so monstrous, but then dealing with a son-in-law like de Sade would have been no picnic. Anna Massey is superb as his unfortunate wife while Senta Berger is solid as her sister, the woman de Sade actually loved and wanted to marry. The film could be accused of turning the Marquis’ life into a love story. The film certainly wants us to believe that de Sade’s excesses were at least partly a result of thwarted love.
And then there’s John Huston, gleefuly stealing the picture as de Sade’s wicked lecherous uncle who sets his nephew on the road to depravity.
The philosophical implications of de Sade’s work don’t get a lot of attention in the film and when it does try to tackle such issues it does so in a way that is much too 1960s.
The DVD includes an interview with Matheson. The most interesting part of this is his revelation that John Huston was apparently disappointed he wasn’t asked to direct the picture! Now that might have been an interesting movie. I suspect Huston would have taken a bolder approach than Endfield. I can’t really imagine a Huston-directed de Sade biopic but it’s something to ponder.
Overall this movie is an interesting mess that often misses its target spectacularly but then at other times it unexpectedly comes up with the goods. It at least avoids the mistake of trying to make de Sade a conventional villain or a rebel hero, instead depicting him as a man whose view of the world is a mixture of insight and delusion.
A failure certainly but worth a look.