It’s hard to say which is the more misleading depiction of the Marquis de Sade, Philip Kaufman’s Quills or Benoit Jacquot’s Sade, but there’s no question which film’s protagonist is the more appealing. Part libertine philosopher, part empathetic matchmaker, Jacquot’s marquis is a sadist you could invite home for tea—although you might choose an afternoon your teenage daughter was certain not to be there.
Although Sade is set in 1794, a decade before the principal action of Quills, the settings are similar: In both, the notorious pornographer and abuser of young women leaves behind the grim Bastille and Saint-Lazare prisons for a therapeutic institution. Jacquot’s Sade (the ever-urbane Daniel Auteuil) is sent to Picpus, a former convent that’s now a clinic for “the maladies of the day,” inhabited by nobles who are essentially under house arrest. It’s a relatively comfortable place, available only to those who can afford the room and board. The comfort is tempered, however, by the knowledge that any one of the residents—including the “revolutionary” Citizen Sade, who denies to an official inquisitor either being of noble birth or writing the lurid Justine—may soon be summoned to the guillotine.
Wittier and subtler than its English-language predecessor, Sade nonetheless keeps echoing it. Both films contrast the free-spirited marquis with a purportedly upright opponent who’s secretly more corrupt than his rival: In Quills, it’s a moralistic old doctor who ends up ordering the vicious flogging of a young woman—the very act for which Sade was once sentenced to prison. Jacquot’s film puts the whip in the hand of Fournier (Gregoire Colin), a tightly wound member of Robespierre’s inner circle who now keeps Sade’s beautiful ex-mistress Sensible (Marianne Denicourt). Still devoted to the marquis, Sensible prevails on Fournier to have him sent to Picpus; she also outfits Sade with linens, sweets, writing paper, and other, more exotic paraphernalia. Consumed by jealousy, Fournier lashes Sensible, which she claims her former lover never did. Ultimately, Sade too ends up on the hurting side of a whip, an incident unsupported by the rogue’s life or work.
Also like Quills, Sade provides its protagonist a near-ripe young protegee to seductively intimidate. Sade shares a carriage ride to Picpus with the decadent Viscount de Lancris (Jean-Pierre Cassel), his pious wife, and their pretty adolescent daughter, Emilie (Isild Le Besco). Whereas Quills’ resident gamin was an earthy young laundress who appreciated Sade’s writing so much that she read it aloud to her blind mother, innocent Emilie rushes from Sade’s room in horror after reading a page of one of his manuscripts. Yet she keeps coming back, beguiled not by the text—whose savage content the film never reveals—but by the author.
Wisely if deceptively, Jacques Fieschi’s script makes little of Sade’s writing process or the work that results from it. Quills labored mightily to evoke Sade’s need to create, arguing for absolute freedom of expression while depicting its hero as a man driven mad by his thoughts and his lust to articulate them. The breezier Sade turns its protagonist into an Oscar Wilde type, a man whose true art is not prose but repartee. (His troubles, he explains, came because “I took the byroads when they wanted me to follow the highway.”) The film builds to an explicitly depicted sexual encounter—its only one—involving Sade and Emilie, but the two spend most of their time together in conversation.
Emilie’s mother warns her daughter not to consort with Sade but is too busy praying to watch her closely; meanwhile, Dad is occupied with a seasoned but impoverished actress (Jeanne Balibar) who begins playing the part of the viscount’s lover so he’ll subsidize her (and her husband’s) stay at Picpus. Other romantic intrigues are under way, as well. An older man dotes on a younger one, to Emilie’s disgust but Sade’s shrugging approval. And the marquis notices Emilie’s interest in hunky gardener Augustin (Jalil Lespert), an attraction he decides to further for reasons that seem equally altruistic and self-serving. It’s as if Sade is helping Emilie earn a merit badge in erotic exploration.
Before the film’s up-market version of the money shot, however, it’s mostly talk on the related subjects of God and Nature. A devoted atheist, Sade uses his sojourn in the former convent to convince Emilie that there is no God and that a rotting corpse’s becoming part of the earth is “a far more comforting eternity than the lies of Christ.” This is not a hypothetical subject, because bodies from Paris are being buried in a mass grave at Picpus and Emilie fears that she might be sent to the guillotine before she’s had anything more than a child’s experience of life. Cross-cutting ironically, the film contrasts a sadomasochistic tableau vivant that Sade stages at Picpus with the “Festival of the Supreme Being” that the desperate Robespierre mounts after suppressing the Revolution’s initial atheism—and just before his own downfall. Kinky sex, apparently, outlasts sanctimony.
Although rendered in the widescreen format that often denotes historical epics, Sade is modernized with handheld camera and the self-conscious close-ups that express Sade and Emilie’s rapport; it seems less distant (if more tendentious) than Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke, which is also set during the French Revolution. In fact, Jacquot’s new film recalls his best-known one, A Single Girl, a day-in-the-life account of a contemporary young woman who also comes into her own. The marquis gets top billing, yet Sade is far less lopsided than Quills, which began as a stage play and was effectively a one-pervert show: When Jacquot’s Sade protests that Emilie is “not as clever as the girls in my novels,” he’s clearly wrong.
Fieschi gives Emilie some good comebacks to her mentor’s pronouncements, notably when he states that the words people write are distinct from the things they do. “But it all goes together, the mind and the body,” Emilie protests. At least Sade allows someone to acknowledge this, even as it depicts its protagonist as infinitely more charming, witty, and humane than the books that have kept his name alive. CP