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Savant Review:

De Sade

De Sade
MGM Home Entertainment
1969 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 104 min. (113, 120) / Avant Garde Cinema
Starring Keir Dullea, Senta Berger, Lilli Palmer, Anna Massey, Sonja Ziemann, Christiane Krüger, Uta Levka
Cinematography Richard Angst
Art Direction Jürgen Kiebach
Film Editor Max Benedict, Hermann Haller
Original Music Billy Strange
Written by Richard Matheson
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Artur Brauner, Louis (Deke) Heyward and James H. Nicholson
Directed by Cy Endfield

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A cinematic mess, De Sade is by turns pretentious and infantile, offering up Freudian explanations for the Marquis' wanton behavior, and silly topless 'orgies' where people laugh a lot and spank each other, etc. The movie had three directors, although only one was forced to take credit, and despite some good production values, there is scarcely a memorable or visually arresting shot in the whole enterprise. Writer Richard Matheson claims that his original script would have been a masterpiece, but that we'll never know - his description of it doesn't hold much promise.


(mild spoilers)
Louis, The Marquis de Sade (Keir Dullea) lives in prison, dreaming of his past both as it happened and in imagined fantasy plays where he's tormented by the ghost of his evil uncle, the Abbe de Sade (John Huston). Indoctrinated at an early age in the possibilities of sex and cruelty by his uncle, Louis is tricked into a wedding with the homely Renee de Montreuil (Anna Massey) by her conniving mother (Lilli Palmer), when he thought he was to marry her younger, dreamboat sister Anne (Senta Berger). Anne becomes a representative of the 'moment of reality' that the Marquis seeks throughout his debauched life, ignoring his wife and outraging his family with his scandals of sex laced with wanton cruelty. Periodically imprisoned by his own relatives, he is finally put away for good when framed for the murder of Anne, who actually died of the plague. He's still seeking the mystery of his life as a feeble old man who can't even rise from his prison cot.

AIP really went overboard on this one: shot in Germany with an international cast that saw possibilities of great quality and artistic liberation in the script. Keir Dullea was hot from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ending of which De Sade resembles in a few particulars. He's actually quite good, when he has a scene to play, and so is the rest of the cast, who soldier on with varying degrees of success. Lilli Palmer is properly oppressive as Louis' mother-in-law from Hell, who becomes his jailer. The charming Anna Massey again plays 'homely', but is given only a scene or two. As the fantasy of De Sade's life, the ravishing Senta Berger is a glamorous centerpiece who makes the picture work whenever she's about. Also hitting the target square on is John Huston, who plays his role seriously instead of sending it up, as he did so frequently around this time. In some scenes he's able to communicate utter depravity with just a wink and a grin; Dullea, unfortunately, never seems to show us any real pleasure in his romping about - he's neither obsessed nor intoxicated by his sins.

When the late Samuel Z. Arkoff visited MGM in 1998, he recounted the tale of Cy Endfield  1 feigning or inducing sickness in a hotel room, to avoid shooting scenes he felt were too pornographic. A few hours later, Roger Corman showed up (for a price, you can bet) to direct the orgy scenes, where bodies pile on bodies but the men keep their pants on and nothing censorable happens at all. It's a dirty old man's conception of an orgy as a smorgasbord of flesh: they play pat-a-cake, spill wine, and that's about it. The sadism is there, with Dullea flogging a trollop, and spanking Uta Levka with a sword about 50 times (ouch). Reprocessed through colored filters and distorting optics, some of the orgies look as if they were mainly staged to provide Playboy with vivid photo spreads. I remember seeing John Huston featured prominently cavorting in those pages, something he doesn't do onscreen.

Other production details are equally tacky. The anachronistic pop vocals in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seemed appropriate at the time, but the musical score for this film features electric guitars and cheap drum riffs that sound more appropriate for Barbarella than the 18th century. With the time frame jumping around, Keir Dullea's makeup varies wildly - sometimes he looks like Dorian Gray, while the players around him seem scarcely to have aged at all. Finally, the main titles are accompanied by an animated cartoon that fails to coalesce the wild themes into some succinct images. Especially lame is the representation of the Marquis' dream, as a bird seeking its freedom.

The 'philosopy' of the Marquis de Sade, which may have had some subversive credence in its time, is here reduced to straight hedonism, with a chaser of narcissism. Dullea makes some pronouncements about the Self only relating to others as objects of pleasure, and spends the rest of his time claiming to be in search of an uobtainable 'moment of true reality' represented on and off by Senta Berger's beguiling tease. The film takes an elliptical form, where the Marquis stages plays that re-enact scenes from his life. Unfortunately, other plays where he is being victimized occur either in the asylums where he is imprisoned, or in his mind. His Uncle the Abbe figures heavily in these. The whole film strives to create a balance of fantasy and reality, play-acting and true life: the only moment that successfully pulls off the trick is when the imprisoned Marquis sees a scene between Palmer and Berger in a mirror, that ends with the ghost of the Abbe interrupting one more time to torment him. Not only does it achieve a tingle of perversity, with the Abbe molesting Berger for De Sade to see, but the temporal-spatial gimmick of the mirror actually works.

That's more than can be said for the rest of the structure, which purports to show the Marquis' entire lifespan but seems limited to the one castle and omits petty details like the French Revolution - which Matheson may have intended to be poetically represented by one debauched party where the Marquis goads his guests into vandalizing his own theater. Strangely enough, AIP went to Germany to achieve the same visual results gotten through the cheap sets of their series of Edgar Allan Poe films back in Hollywood - and naughty Louis never achieves even Prince Prospero's or Roderick Usher's level of genre complexity. The poor Marquis never seems to have a point to his life, except rejecting the tyranny of his family - we never even begin to get a handle on him.

MGM's DVD of De Sade is a good-looking transfer of what is supposed to be an uncut version of the film. Never having seen a cut version, it's difficult to say what would have been taken out. I presume the picture was originally an "X" but its lightweight nonsexual tussling would probably get an R now. My projection television overscans some, but many scenes seem too tight on top just the same, as if the 1:85 was supposed to hang from high in the frame, and the transfer took a straight center scan. There's a French dub track of high quality, that helps with the believability of the scenes, but it isn't recommended, as neither Dullea or Huston, with his wonderful voice, par-lay the frahn-say.

The cover art for the package is really arresting and would make a creepy poster. A trailer that gives a Serious Sell the old college try is included, but the main feature is a short interview called Richard Matheson Storyteller, made by MGM DVD producer Greg Carson. The writer is shown at work while talking about his interest in films and his idea of the afterlife, which certainly jibes with his stories Somewhere in Time and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Somewhere in the middle he explains that his original script of De Sade had much the same content of the final, more or less linear film, but was jumbled around in time much like the cinema puzzle Last Year at Marienbad. Savant loves to mentally rework movies 'crippled' by editorial mistreatment, but trying to picture De Sade presented as Matheson describes, doesn't produce any great bursts of brilliance, because expressing the Marquis' temporal confusion wouldn't add to his thin characterization. If the bland material were arranged in a more obscure pattern, this would still be a pretentious, high-budgeted nudie film ... with a jumbled continuity.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, De Sade rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: short interview docu with writer Richard Matheson
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 15, 2002


1. Endfield is one heck of a good, unappreciated director. His Try and Get Me (The Sound of Fury) is a ferocious and traumatic Noir, and he's the brains behind Zulu and Zulu Dawn. Critics often dismiss his reticence to film the nude orgy scenes of De Sade, claiming that because it was all in the script, he should have known when he took the job. Even in the '60s, shooting scripts were often green-lit with the lure of hot material that all concerned knew would have to be toned down; it's possible that Cyril wasn't aware that a major studio could shoot scenes like these ... The IMDB lists Gordon Hessler as another uncredited director. Frankly, the flat-lit, inexpressive coverage-look of much of De Sade most resembles his work - the dull (Murders in the Rue Morgue) and the incoherent (Scream and Scream Again). The lovely Barboura Morris, an actress seen almost exclusively in Roger Corman films, turns up as a nun at the very end, which may indicate Corman as the auteur du jour of the deathbed finale.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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