When graphic designers go odd…
So, a puzzled Keir Dullea, surrounded by antique-style furniture, turns around and sees himself as an old man. What film are we watching?
Award yourself 10 points if you answered “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY”, and eleventy million points if you added “or DESADE.” Since DESADE is a film about a man trapped in an infinite time loop, the sense of deja vu Dullea must have experienced from his work as astronaut Dave Bowman may have helped him get into character.
Donatien Alphonse, Marquis de Sade, embodied by Dullea, is on his death bed, adrift in visions from his past life (it doesn’t so much flash before his eyes as trundle) in this late work from blacklistee and ZULU helmer Cy Endfield, produced by AIP. One wonders what must have gone wrong with Endfield’s career to bring him to this point — and thence to the horrors of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER? After 1965’s SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, he didn’t work for four years, and when he did…
…he got a project already rejected by Roger Corman. Corman told his bosses at AIP that this movie wouldn’t work, since the censors would let them show what they needed to show in order to make a respectable life of Sade. He also voiced concerns with their choice of replacement — there was some doubt that Endfield would be able to bring himself to include the exploitation elements the film needed in the marketplace. The whole thing was a balancing act between the censors and the box office. Endfield faithfully promised to shoot a spicy yarn, but seemingly chickened out when it came to the crunch, so Corman was roped in to shoot some extra skin.
How we laughed. Pouring hot wax on prostitutes — I guess you had to be there.
You can pretty much identify the Corman interpolations: he shoots the orgies in slow motion through a thick red filter, just like Hazel Court’s satanic rite in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. It pretty well robs the scenes of erotic potential, since we lose the flesh tones, and gain only the opportunity to observe jiggling cellulite at 100 fps. Also, everybody’s laughing in Dullea’s orgies. The relationship between sex and humour is a complex one, but generally speaking, if you’re throwing an orgy (does one throw orgies? Or organize them, like posses?) and the “guests” or “participants” or “fuckers” or whatever you call them, are in a constant state of hysteria, is anything going to get done? Is anyone going to get done?
Leaving aside the sex, we have the story, at least in theory. It’s a kind of biography-by-hallucination, comparable to Raoul Ruiz’s more recent KLIMT, only written by Richard Matheson. I admire Matheson’s work, and his contribution to cinema is as fine as his contribution to genre fiction, but I have to admit his bad-guy dialogue is inclined to the fruity. He really needs Vincent Price to get away with some of these lines. A few years later, acting in a TV version of Huxley’s Brave New World, Dullea would display the camp chops necessary to pull off a Vincent, but here he lacks full confidence in his flounce and pout, so it’s left to older hams to relish the rich flow of Matheson’s verbiage.
Darling Lilli — still porcelain-perfect, but huge black eyes like mouseholes.
Lilli Palmer is in fine fettle as Sade’s mother-in-law (and WHAT a mother-in-law!), and John Huston has disruptive fun with the part of Sade’s wicked uncle, the Abbé. He even plays his first scene with some kind of stage Oirish accent, just because he’s John Huston and nobody can stop him. He also gets the most disturbing scene, the primal scene, if you will, where Sade as a boy spies on his uncle molesting a maid, and then gets caught and punished. The future arch-pervert’s young mind forms a lasting association between sex, cruelty and voyeurism. It’s all very dollar-book Freud, but it’s passable as motivation, and the sequence is genuinely distressing. I’m not sure you could even film it nowadays.
Eyes Wide Crossed.
Complicating the psychodrama is his love for his sister-in-law. He’s forced to wed plain-jane Anna Massey (in the middle film of her sadeian trilogy, sandwiched between PEEPING TOM and FRENZY) despite being hopelessly in love with glamourpuss Senta Berger. This embitters him and sets him on his path of sexual turpitude, if turpitude is the word for it.
Senta’s little helper.
Matheson may have a simplistic but clear angle on Sade’s psychosexual upset, but he’s forced to short-change us on Sade the philosopher. The do-what-thou-wilt catechisms we associate with Sade’s books are here either ignored, in order to present us with Sade the lovelorn drip, or they’re given to the Abbé, the real villain of the piece. This rather falsifies the story, and is the aspect of the film the Divine Marquis would no doubt have despised the most. In fact, Sade’s writing barely gets a look in.
“Ooh, I could crush a grape…”
Paul Schrader observed, when he was making Mishima, that the only way to film a writer’s life was by dramatizing his stories. With a composer, you play the music; with a painter, you show the work; but a novelist is unique since you have to actually adapt their art into a whole new medium just to give some (unavoidably falsified) idea of what they do. I’d be interested in a radical solution to this problem that involved lengthy recitations, but I can’t think of one of hand. All I can think of is films that dramatize the work (MISHIMA, DREAMCHILD, GOTHIC) or films that don’t, and fail (IRIS). And oh yes, a third category, which DESADE falls into —
— along with Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH — the films which create a phantasmagoria, the life of the artist merged with their work, or filtered through their style. That’s what Matheson has tried to write, but he’s unable to get to grips with Sade’s pornographic side, and unwilling to get to grips with his world-view (which is arguably even more unpleasant). But at least it gives him an unusual style and structure. Increasingly the film plays like the last act of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, with reality and fantasy cascading together in an avalanche of dream.
How do you solve a problem like the Marquis? I confess I haven’t seen MARQUIS, in which the naughty nobleman’s life is enacted by puppets designed by renaissance man Roland Topor, with the Marquis’s most satisfying relationship being with his talking penis, but that sounds like the most realistic version conceivable. Nor have I seen Peter Brook’s film of his stage success, THE MARAT/SADE. I have scant regard for Brook as a filmmaker, but that might be at least a bit interesting. Saw the play once. It was a bit interesting. Philip Kaufman’s QUILLS falls flat because again, it’s reluctant to admit how nasty Sade’s fantasies were: when it tries to do so, the film’s rather jovial tone disintegrates, which would be fine if it were an intentional effect, but it doesn’t seem to be. Pasolini’s SALO is still the most unadulterated, apocalyptic version of Sade put on screen, and that was promptly banned in nearly every country on Earth. I believe it was legal to screen it on the Moon, but the film came out three years after the last manned flight there. I’m not sure astronaut Eugene A. Cernan has seen the film to this day.
Their royal lownesses, the King and Queen of Lilliput.
Returning to the Endfield: he directs it with some pictorial flair (although my MGM DVD seems to cut things off at the top), aided by decorous locations, but there’s sometimes a lack of good sense in his shooting: after showing the newly married Dullea and Massey advancing between two lines of people, he cuts to a reverse angle, seemingly a POV, but shot from knee-height as if the protagonists had been abruptly munchkinated. He’s also inclined to masturbate the zoom lens a bit.
Somehow, the film is still a decent watch, maybe because it has enough bad taste to compensate for its lack of bad taste. It’s not offensive as porn or very upsetting as drama (apart from that one scene), but it’s decorated with enough lapses of common sense to make it amusing. The opening credits, in which Sade is envisioned as a ball-playing winged fish, are ludicrously abstract, and the music by the wonderfully-named Billy Strange chooses to equate decadence with modernity, so that the faux-18th century chamber music segues into bongo jazz or wah-wah guitar whenever anything juicy threatens to happen. Like most bad decisions in films scoring, this approach has a perfectly sound reason behind it: it’s just that it doesn’t work. I expect Michael Mann to try something similar any day now.
Here’s some more sado-erotic action with Lilli Palmer, thirty years earlier in Carol Reed’s pre-make of SHOWGIRLS, enticingly entitled A GIRL MUST LIVE. Lilli’s Scottish opponent is the great Renee Houston.