This one has been in my queue for a while. Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, pre-weird Joaquin Phoenix and the always amazing Michael Caine—plus it’s a period piece—how could it not be amazing? It came out in 2000, which, considering the topic, explains why I had to discover this one on Netflix (I wasn’t even to double digits yet!). The movie is set in 18th century France (if you know your French history this is during the Revolution, specifically Napoleon’s reign—he makes an appearance). The Marquis de Sade (Rush), an aristocrat and writer, resides in the asylum Charenton; the young laundress Madeline (Winslet) smuggles out the Marquis’s scandalous writings based on his libertine (unrestrained by morals) sexual fantasies. Trust me, they get pretty outrageous, after-all “Sade” is the basis for the words “sadist” and “sadism.” The Abbe du Coulmier (Phoenix) is seen as unable to control the Marquis, who obsessively producing and secretly publishes story after story. Dr. Royer-Collard (Caine), the exact type of doctor that gave rise to the torture treatments most people think of, is sent to Charenton to help get the asylum, and specifically the Marquis, under control.
This movie is certainly not for everyone. There’s language, nudity, sex and lots of talk about sex, rape, necromancy, sodomy, and on and on. But the characterization of the Marquis is the great storyline of the film. His stories are so wrong, not just erotic but wrong, and he seems to not care much for anyone. Anyone, that is, except Madeline; though he also doesn’t treat her with much respect. His view of humanity, in general and his own, is dark, reflected in the darkness in his fantasies. These fantasies, in the end, lead to tragic consequences for all involved. On a side note, the film provides a look at mental illness and sexuality, two topics that we, as a society, avoid at almost all costs. And as if all this isn’t enough we see different sides of love between the Doctor and his young, convent-raised bride, the same girl and the architect her husband hires and, most importantly, the chaste Abbe and the lovely Maddie. There’s a whole lot of loving go on to say the least and it’s fantastic.
As I said I’m a sucker for period pieces but this one is so different and unexpected—though apparently not very historically correct— I wish I would’ve seen it sooner. It’s available on Netflix right now. If you’re not convinced, or are just curious, check out the trailer: