Sunday, September 13, 2009

DE SADE (1969)

Crazy weird bad movie which gets off to an interesting beginning with some postmodern narrative trickery, but soon becomes boring as hell. Kier Dullea is the Marquis De Sade, whom we first meet as a decrepit old man returning to his uncle’s seemingly abandoned mansion. However, once we're inside, his uncle (John Huston) and a troupe of actors, all of whom may or may not be figments of Sade's imagination, use a large ballroom to stage a number of scenes enacting incidents from Sade's past, which then become flashback memories. The very young Sade witnesses Huston fooling around with a servant girl in a stable and is whipped; his uncle tells him that an individual’s deeds don't matter as long as a face of virtue is shown to the world. Later Sade is forced into a marriage contract with the plain and frigid Renee (Anna Massey), but is actually in love with her sister Anne (Senta Berger). These two things seem to be the seeds of the violent sexual behaviors that obsess Sade for the rest of his life and get him into trouble with his powerful relatives and the law. Eventually, he does have an interlude with Anna (who, if I read it right, is also bedded by Huston at least once), but they are parted when she contracts the plague and dies. We last see Sade as a dying man attended by nuns, trying to discover a "special moment of reality."

The convoluted and theatrical narrative structure is probably easier to parse now than it was for mainstream audiences in 1969, though I think some last-minute cutting (not to mention occasional random orgy scenes in slow-motion with purple tinting) muddied the already murky waters, especially toward the end of the film. I figure Huston is a vision of death, like Jessica Lange was for Roy Scheider in ALL THAT JAZZ, so virtually the entire movie plays out as Sade lies on his deathbed. The controversial nature of Sade's life and philosophy is completely neutered here, with the most transgressive act pictured being some mild whipping of women's bare butts. Anyone with no previous knowledge of Sade would wonder why the hell he was considered such a threat to society that he had to be locked up in prisons and asylums for much of his life. Dullea is out-and-out terrible in the lead role--the handsome blandness and mild demeanor which made him perfect as astronaut Dave in 2001 make him absolutely wrong to play a raving sadist. His old age make-up, however, is very good. Massey is fine in a small role, and Huston's grandstanding is fun in the beginning but begins to wear after a while. Screenwriter Richard Matheson insists his material was badly handled, and indeed as I've noted, the story structure is the most interesting thing about the movie. MGM Home Entertainment has marketed this DVD as a cult film, but its following must consist solely of people who haven't actually seen it yet. [DVD]

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