The marketing for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 Lolita used the tagline “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”. Even better question: how does somebody in the 1960’s make a biopic of the Marquis de Sade? Among the most likely answers include “you don’t”, and another is “not like this movie”.
Keir Dullea was excellent as Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey but that wasn’t exactly an actor’s movie, per se. In that film, he was intentionally only slightly more emotional than the HAL 9000 computer.
But what was required in 2001 is the opposite of what one should bring to a picture like this. Except for a few scenes, Dullea’s de Sade (try saying that five times fast) is weirdly stoic and far from the lust-mad monster this role demands. It is only in a scene where he portrays his equally-pervy uncle in a stage production that Dullea really cuts loose and shows what the performance should have been.
That uncle is played by John Huston. If you’ve seen Chinatown (and, if not, go rectify this immediately), he brings that same charismatic sleazebag chemistry to this picture. His character figures in one of the few scenes to offer an explanation for de Sade’s unique tastes, as Huston encourages a young woman to flail a young de Sade with a riding crop.
And yet, even with that convenient explanation, I still never felt like I gained any greater insight into de Sade’s personality or motivations. I won’t pretend to understand the allure of sadomasochism, and somehow I don’t think anybody involved in this production did, either. It largely seems to be a skin flick wrapped in the pretentions of art house cinema. So much of the movie’s running time is taken up with bare female flesh that it almost had the “Showgirls effect”, leaving me immune to such visuals. YOU MONSTERS!
Probably the most interesting aspect of this film is likely what left most audiences cold. The framing for the plot at first appears to be a play of de Sade’s life, staged for his benefit by his uncle. Scenes in the play occasionally become real-life incidents in his past, and vice-versa. At one point, we are essentially watching a play-within-a-play-within-the-movie.
This contrivance could have worked, but it didn’t gel for me. The screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, one of my absolute most favorite authors, so I wasn’t surprised he would do something novel with a biopic about such a controversial figure. At the same time, the end result consistently kept me at arm’s length. It may basically have the same type of chronologically disorienting narrative as Slaughterhouse Five, but it falls short of the mark.
De Sade lives down to its parentage, a moderately budgeted skin flick from low-budget studio American International, with artistic aspirations that only end up being pretentious. Even de Sade deserves better than this.
Dir: allegedly Cy Endfield, but mostly an uncredited Roger Corman
Starring Kier Dullea, John Huston, Senta Berger, Lilli Palmer
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray (unrated cut)