Somewhere in between the histrionics of Geoffrey Rush in Philip Kaufman's "Quills" and Daniel Auteuil's dark and gloomy interpretation in Benoit Jacquot's "Sade" is the truth about the mysterious Marquis de Sade.
If Rush went over to the mad side in his evocation of the unbridled passions of the writer in his final years at the Charenton insane asylum, then Auteuil's far more restrained, nuanced effort suffers from a brooding lethargy that makes his Sade seem little more than a morose, misunderstood man.
"Sade" focuses on a short period in the middle of the writer's life when he was imprisoned at Picpus, a convent turned prison hospital in 1794, during the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution. The notorious author had already served time in Bastille and Saint Lazare prisons, among others, so this aging rest home with crucifixes on its walls provides some world-weary relief in his darkest hour. As members of the ruling class are beheaded and terror reigns, aristocrats have been exiled to Picpus, so the place has the frozen-in-time quality with assorted characters from the Old Regime awaiting their fate -- which, for many, will be the guillotine.
In this space between life and death, past and present, Sade finds the perfect arena for his bizarre stage shows, and recruits the "patients" to act. Meanwhile, the terror escalates and bodies are being dumped in the gardens of Picpus.
Sade, enemy of the puritanical Robespierre, is being protected by "Sensible," Sade's nickname for his mistress (played by the ravishing Marianne Denicourt), who takes up with a Robespierre sympathizer in order to keep her lover from danger.
The film posits Sade as a man whose sexual obsessions are part of his political beliefs and his atheism, but the manner in which the film conveys this will put all but committed history buffs to sleep. There are long, talky scenes in courtyards and dark rooms in which Sade spouts not particularly compelling beliefs about individualism, freedom and the need to experience the extremes of life.
His most attentive student is the sullen teenager Emilie (the lovely Isild Le Besco of "Girls Can't Swim"), who gravitates to the equally sullen Sade simply because he's the most interesting guy around.
Anyone seeking kinky sex in this film should look elsewhere; the only sex scene takes place well into the film's second half and is a rather clinical seduction orchestrated by Sade.
"Sade" is a fine, handsome-looking costume drama that works best as a historical account of a brutal era. But as a portrait of the Marquis de Sade, it is neither titillating in the over-the-top manner of "Quills" nor particularly revealing about the psychology of the man whose penchant for young girls riled polite society as much as his salacious novels and plays.
This Sade is hardly a perverse, dangerous libertine and agitator -- which would have made for better drama. He's just a sad aristocrat in tattered finery, and the film seems as deflated as he does.
2 1/2stars (out of 4)
Directed by Benoit Jacquot; written by Jacques Fieschi and Bernard Minoret; photographed by Benoit Delhomme; edited by Luc Barnier; music by Francis Poulain; production design by Sylvain Chauvelot; produced by Patrick Godeau. An Empire Pictures release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:40. (In French; English subtitled.) No MPAA rating.
Sade -- Daniel Auteuil
Sensible -- Marianne Denicourt
Madame Santero -- Jeanne Balibar
Fournier -- Gregoire Colin
Emilie -- Isild Le Besco