Benoit Jacquot’s thoughtful but underwhelming costumer shows how, during the French Revolution, the notorious marquis kept his head when all around him were (literally) losing theirs. Set in 1794 during the closing months of the government-sanctioned blood-bath known as “The Terror,” “Sade” speculates about the only period in the title character’s life about which little is known and makes a case for him as a swell guy who inspired both lust and loyalty. The consistently excellent Daniel Auteuil infuses his charac-ter with just enough elegant oomph to keep things interesting but, despite several fine individual scenes, pic is strangely flat and perfunctory more often than not.
“Sade” was believed to be a serious contender for a Competition slot at Cannes earlier this year but didn’t get a berth after all in a field heavy with French historical dramas. Although pic has been sold to some key Euro territories (Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany), plus Japan, and is getting a major push in Gaul, this marquis’ true marquee value offshore may not be apparent until its showings in Montreal (in competition) and Venice. French-lingo pic would not appear to be a serious threat to Philip Kaufman’s forthcoming “Quills” in which Geoffrey Rush appears as Sade opposite Kate Winslet, Michael Caine and Joaquin Phoenix.
From the opening widescreen frames, Sade is a man apart. Auteuil plays him as unfailingly suave and a lively conversationalist rather than a de-praved libertine. In 1794, at Saint Lazare prison, he’s cheerful and focused despite the vermin, the maggots in the bread and the flies on the clumps of feces that adorn the insalubrious decor.
We learn in short order that Sade thinks a belief in God and prayer is pointless when nature, and not some “supreme being,” is the obvious ulti-mate driving force. Sade’s militant atheism is in direct opposition to the beliefs of the current head cheese, Robespierre.
Instead of a one-way trip in a tumbrel, Sade is transferred via coach to a former convent, Picpus, the late-18th century equivalent of a country club prison. In such places, which masqueraded as clinics for the mentally ill, wealthy aristocrats could buy a temporary respite from the guillotine.
Sade had no money and so pic posits that his mistress – Marie-Constance Quesnet (Marianne Denicourt), whom he calls Sensible (“sensitive”) – arranged for her lover’s move. (Pic has an extra layer of depth for French viewers, well aware that Auteuil and Denicourt are a real-life couple, here in their third screen outing together.)
The accommodation at Picpus proves comfortable, and the grounds are attractive until Republican soldiers dig a huge pit into which hundreds of headless bodies are tossed. A guillotine is also erected on the convent grounds, but Sade is more interested in awakening Emilie (played by then-16-year-old Isild Le Besco, in an insolent, compelling perf) to sensual pleasures, which he does in a courtly and gracious manner.
Meanwhile, Sensible, with a son who calls Sade “papa,” is somewhat reluctantly shacked up with her own protector, Fournier (brooding Gregoire Colin), who works for Robespierre and despises Sade. Fournier, however, pulls strings to increase the marquis’ odds of survival as it means so much to the woman he loves.
In a blending of historical fact and plausible speculation, Sade’s internment at Picpus is presented as a wonderful laboratory for him to mingle with other aristocratic inmates, to write secretly, to court openly and even to put on a play. He emerges as an extremely well-spoken and self-assured individual, who enjoys life wherever he happens to find himself.
There’s nothing salacious or titillating about Jacquot’s pic – which may disappoint some viewers while piquing the interest of others. Emilie’s deflowering by a hunky young groundskeeper (Jalil Lespert) is sensitively handled, with Sade “directing” much like a helmer blocking a scene. Although there is a shot of Auteuil’s fingers penetrating a woman’s nether regions, pic’s most “perverse” aspect is more the occasional sinister, almost tongue-in-cheek harpsichord chord.
While settings and costumes convince, the promising support cast is relegated to fretful or mopey pronouncements. Plenty of handheld camera work renders the spacious convent and grounds intimate, yet the lensing reverts to a near-stodginess in some sequences.
Pic’s strongest plus, along with Le Besco’s intriguing perf, is Auteuil’s lively embodiment of Sade as a man who’s philosophical but not de-bauched – a prisoner who’s ironically “free” and who passes on his brand of freedom to a young protege.