“Everything one can imagine, I have done.”
Sade begins with a scene inside Saint-Lazare prison in 1794. The prison’s noble captives are transported daily via tumbrils to their grisly fate. Meanwhile, with the guillotine in full swing, some of the more fortunate nobles–those who have the ability to call in favours or offer bribes–are transferred to an asylum at Picpus. Living in the asylum doesn’t mean that its residents have escaped Madame Guillotine–it just means that they’ve bought some time.
The Marquis de Sade (Daniel Auteuil) is transferred to Picpus–thanks to the devotion of his former mistress Marie-Constance Quesnet (Marianne Denicourt). She now lives with the Deputy Fournier (Gregorie Colin), and he indulges her desire to protect Sade but expects a great deal in return.
The Viscount Lancris (Jean Pierre-Cassel), his wife and teenage daughter, Emilie (Isild Le Besco) arrive at the asylum along with de Sade. Madame de Lancris hovers around briefly in an attempt to protect her daughter from de Sade’s wicked wiles, but when she takes to her bed, the Marquis and Emilie form a relationship. At first, the Marquis seems a little naughty–almost as though his reputation is not warranted. He even describes himself as “an old galleon–about to sink.”
The film succeeds in showing the coldness of the mass executions, the terror experienced by those being dragged off to their fate, and the bureaucratic efficiency that must be enacted to dispose of thousands of corpses. The doomed aristocrats in the asylum are either paralyzed by depression or intent on distraction. Emilie, incapable of either state, wanders into de Sade’s path–along with a young Chevalier (Vincent Branchet)–the plaything of a decadent, elderly noble. De Sade forms a relationship with Emilie–is he motivated by kindness, boredom, or is she a different sort of conquest?
De Sade has the name recognition that guarantees an audience, but it should come as no great shock that the film does not accurately portray de Sade. De Sade’s pernicious exploits remain–even today–rather unacceptable for public consumption. Of all the current ‘big’ name actors in French cinema, Daniel Auteuil is arguably the most capable for the complex role of de Sade (anyone who’s seen Auteuil in L’Elegant Criminel knows the depravity this actor conveys so smoothly on the screen).From director Benoit Jacquot, in French with subtitles.
Auteuil plays de Sade with a subtlety that belies the wickedness he’s capable of. The film explores the idea of Seduction as primarily a psychological process, and ultimately, the Marquis is a slippery, masterful expert. Directed by Benoit Jacquot, the film is in French with English subtitles.