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In “De Sade” (1969) imagination is the only truth

Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), spent almost a third of his life in prison (for, among other things, sodomy, flagellation and the use of cantharides) and mad-houses, where he produced an extraordinary body of revolutionary literature in the form of psycho-sexual fantasies, most notably 120 Days of Sodom.

De Sade (1969) is not quite as silly as it looks and sounds, but it comes very close. The film, screened over Christmas at the Quad, starts off as an ordered, theatrical hallucination. An aging Sade (Keir Dullea), just escaped from the asylum, returns to the chateau where he once staged his revels, a lodging where even the dust and cobwebs appear appropriately fabulous.

At the chateau, his uncle, the wicked abbé (John Huston), who looks like a cross between Harvey Weinstein and a sickly bloodhound, forces him to watch staged reenactments of his life, which, in turn, become real—or are they? De Sade is very much one of those “or are they?” movies, except much more entertaining. Orgies occur at regular intervals throughout the film, in the form of commercial breaks if all commercial breaks were directed by American Apparel. But the most shocking thing about them is the pink color in which they’re photographed. There is a climactic orgy near the end (no pun intended) that progresses from sex to the wild, mindless destruction of furniture, a scene almost as cathartic as the real life satisfaction of group spankings.

At one point de Sade is introduced to a brazen lady at an otherwise skimpy ball, “Your servant, Madame,” he says. She replies with a leer: “I’d hoped it would be the other way around.”

Sade’s peculiar behavior is explained by some paperback analysis—his cool Mum, a disinterested father, an early whipping and unrequited love for his sister-in-law (Senta Berger). The film, having once established Sade’s conception of the theater-as-his-world (and the world as-his-theater), makes nothing of it. “Imagination is the only truth,” says Sade. In that case, I would love to live inside of de Sade‘s head.

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