Directed By: Philip Kaufman
Written By: Doug Wright
I studied history in college and during one year took an entire course on The French Revolution and then another on the Napoleonic Era. I had a very enthusiastic and talented teacher and it was one of my favorite courses throughout college. The French Revolution was nothing short of insane and as we progressed through the semester each day was like going in for another chapter to a story that got crazier by the day. It was in that class that I first saw a clip of this film. Our professor showed it to us when we discussed the real Marquis de Sade. Being the movie enthusiast that I am, coupled with my sincere and serious interest in the class, I went out and bought my own copy. This film has been part of our collection for a very long time but isn’t watched that often. It’s never been a film I loved but I find the performances in the film impressive and it gave me the one and only “Q” within our collection giving us at least one film for every letter in the alphabet.
Anyone who wants to say the world is going to hell these days need only look to the past to see that they know nothing of hell. The world is as it always has been but people love to think that when they were growing up that everything was perfect but more often than not that is not the case. Take today for example, in an era when women can discreetly read obscene books like 50 Shades of Grey on tablets and sales sky rocket. It could be said that the success of such a perverse novel could suggest that morals have gone out the door. Yet a movie like this shows us that there has always been a market for perversion in society. The Marquis de Sade was a very real person whose works left a significant mark that will always be remembered in certain circles. He’s not a historical character I have ever cared to research but I am aware of his notoriety.
As the Marquis de Sade Geoffrey Rush gives a performance worthy of the Academy Award nomination he received. I don’t care for the level of perversion in this film, which is all the work of Rush’s character, but you can’t help but marvel over the acting. Rush is a terrific actor who I think wasted too much time at the behest of Disney and those silly Pirate films. He did that for his kids though and I think that’s pretty cool, I just didn’t care for that franchise myself. Nevertheless Rush is a fantastic actor who delivers an impressive performance in this film. As the Marquis he is unrelenting and devious to the most ultimate level. His wit is matched only by his desire to create chaos. His success in creating chaos is the product of his perseverance. It’s as if the devil himself is within the man pushing him to insight the masses and further the madness engulfing the revolution. He is not the only great actor in this film though.
I have long since been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix despite how strange the man is in his personal life. Phoenix is the type of actor who can make you believe, but he is also the type that dances on the line of life far too much. I have literally feared for years waking up to an overdose story in the news about Phoenix. That hasn’t happened and he might be a completely different person these days for all I know. I hope I am wrong in that impression because I think Phoenix is one of the best there is out there and would hate for him to follow the footsteps of his brother River Phoenix. He delivers a great performance in this movie but he does that nearly every time he takes the screen no matter what kind of role he is playing. In this film he takes what might have been a simple role and brings something extra to it. He has an ability to convey so much more than he can do with just words. In his character you can see his longing and the internal struggle he has within himself. He a strong character haunted by temptations he uses the resolve of his character to resist.
In the role of the lead actress is another fantastic performer in Kate Winslet. Winslet has always been on a level above her peers and not vain enough to force another impossible figure on society. What I have always loved about Winslet the most is her honesty as an actress. I love her character in this film the most because while she s the vessel for the Marquis she is still the most innocent of the characters. She is curious and mischievous in a manner that befits a young lady who is simply testing the waters but she never really does anything wrong. She is the object of the Abbé’s lust and the reason for his tormented internal battle. Her affection for him isn’t wrong though, she isn’t bound by the laws of God to maintain celibacy. She may find the Marquis work interesting but she never acts on any provoked desires herself. Nevertheless it is always the innocent that suffer in these situations as she is the victim of a simpleton who is provoked by the perverted works of the Marquis. It is tragic what happens to her. Those who blame her and allow it to happen are far more evil than any of the crazies in the asylum. She made mistakes but she was just a foolish girl and didn’t deserve what happened to her.
Michael Caine is one of my favorite actors but this is easily my least favorite role he plays. He is top notch in the part, of course, but this character is so wicked. The fact that he can play such a part only shows his range as an actor. As Dr. Royer-Collard he is hard and prudent, but his anger comes from his own hypocritical nature that he keeps in the dark. The man that his young wife sees during the night is the man that he hides from the world as he administers his harsh justice to the insane and perverse. His cruelty comes from his own hatred for who he really is and like all people of that nature he indulges in his desires despite the image he tries to put. A man like the Abbé whips himself to purge away the evil thoughts; the good Doctor simply applies that torture to the victims at his disposal.
If I remember correctly my professor in college said that this movie was a great example of the Marquis and the time period it was set. The only discrepancy I recall was that in the film Napoleon is shown, in typical English fashion exaggerating his lack of height, but Napoleon’s rule did not correlate with the days of the Marquis. Given the opportunity to touch on Napoleon I would like to bring up his portrayal in this film. There is a camera shot at one point from under his chair to show his feet dangling as a suggestion that Napoleon was really short. While Napoleon was by no means tall he was of average height. The common misconception about his height came from the way he was depicted by the English during his conquest. They needed something to criticize this man that beat the pants off of them every time battle was joined so the caricatured as a borderline midget. In history we know that the victors are the one who write the history thus Napoleon is remembered a short tyrant. While we have great historical documentation of Napoleon’s rise to power and rule the British ideas about him still dominate how he is depicted culturally. Napoleon did lose, but it took probably the greatest joint effort ever by an entire continent to stop him, and even then had he had the proper resources he may have won at the Battle of Waterloo. It’s been 10 years since college so don’t quote me on my memory but I would encourage anybody to research Napoleon themselves. As interesting a man as the world has ever seen.
I have owned this movie for ten years or more and never in that time have I ever suggested or recommended it to anyone. This is a terrific movie for anybody who wants to see powerful performances from great actors but a horrible movie for any tender hearted soul. This movie is as vile and perverse as anything I own. I own it for what I think to be very reasonable circumstances but otherwise I think it may sit on my shelf unwatched till the end of time now. I think the movie would be worth the time of anybody bold enough to sit through it but I can’t foresee any reason why I would ever watch it again and won’t suggest that you give your time to it either unless there is a specific reason to do so.
NEXT MOVIE: Rain Man (1988)