I had no idea what to expect from a movie about the Marquis De Sade from 1969. The era is wrong for it to have the sort of blatant depictions of sexual cruelty you might see on Game of Thrones today, but if they aren’t going to do that then what are they going to do? The only reason why the Marquis is notable is because he was the original sadist. Making a tame movie about him is like doing a biography of the Pillsbury Doughboy where you never show any ovens.
It turns out that for the most part this movie is like the Age of Aquarius dance scene from the end of the 40 Year Old Virgin. De Sade’s score seemed like it would have worked equally as well on the campy 60’s Batman TV show and the bacchanals often look less like orgies and more like riotous pillow fights at a grown-up’s sleepover party. At one point in the film’s climactic rager de Sade and a friend each pick a woman up over their shoulders, then they raise the woman’s skirts up and proceed to play bumper cars with their bare butts. It’s a funny scene, but somehow it doesn’t seem to capture the spirit of a sexually depraved lunatic.
No, this film isn’t really a portrait of one of history’s most infamous perverts, it’s more of a snapshot of a particular time in filmmaking. The framing device for the movie is that the Marquis’ uncle is making him watch a stage play of his shameful indiscretions to get him back for a time when the Marquis put on a play that aired his uncle’s dirty laundry to the world. It’s the sort of gimmick that screams pretentious undergrad – the show within a show within a show as a metaphor for life – but it also establishes that the movie doesn’t just want to be naked tits on display. (It would probably be better off if it was just tits on display.) That mixture of exploitation and ambition is unique to a specific time in film history, back when people were willing to give an experimental film a try if it promised to be titillating, back before people had gotten burned on one too many pretentious pieces of crap.
Another interesting time stamp: all the naked bodies are smiling playfully, which you see much less of in the 70s. By the time you get to say, Caligula, it had became clear that nudity wasn’t on the screen to promote new freedoms, it was there to make a quick bit of cash for production companies interested in serving the lowest common denominator, and the nymphs that were cavorting on screen looked a lot more like people who were bored at their humiliating day job than they do here, where they seem to enjoy horsing around.
There is something joyous and wrongheaded about this, which is honestly a bit of a surprise because I was expecting it to just be wrongheaded. That doesn’t mean that this is good, mind you, but it’s certainly not without it’s charms.