Rated: R
Stars: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix

This story about the Marquis De Sade, a French writer of sadistic/pornographic prose is controversial and even hard to take, to be sure. This one stars Geoffrey Rush in a dazzling performance as the Marquis himself, a man relegated to an insane asylum where he’s allowed to continue to write his blasphemous novels as a kind of therapy. He lives in a lavishly appointed cell replete with an array of Asian sex toys, lovely furnishings and a large array and endless supply of writing materials, including the quills that served as pens in that period. All of this is permitted by a progressive young asylum director, Abbe Coulmier, a priest (Joaquin Phoenix), who believes in the humane treatment of all patients.

The Marquis’ tortured wife suffers greatly for his “crime” but supports his lifestyle nonetheless, by bringing him all sorts of goodies from the outside world.

His graphic novels of sex, crime and pain become vivid reading for the asylum help, particularly for the fetching laundress, Madeleine (Kate Winslet) who has taken a liking to the Marquis and helps get his works published by smuggling them out of the asylum to the waiting hands of a man on horseback who whisks them away. It seems, ordinary Parisian folk just can’t get enough of the seamy works and buy them eagerly.

When the latest novel falls into the hands of Emperor Napoleon, he is not amused, and so he commissions the city’s premier physician, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to “cure” the Marquis of his wicked thoughts and desires. He does this at first by pressuring the good abbe Coulmier to rein in the Marquis. But the more the Marquis is forbidden to write, the greater extremes he goes to do just that. And all the while, he is aided by Madeleine who serves as the focal point for the Marquis’ lusts, just as she serves as a delicious temptation to Coulmier who fights tooth and nail not to succumb to her charms.

The Marquis’ erotic and violent tales are gamely played out in the readings by Madeleine and again in a play performed by the asylum inmates. The Marquis pushes himself into a corner where his cell is no longer his refuge. He is stripped of everything he holds dear, including his clothing, and now he truly is a prisoner. Coulmier struggles with the doctor’s wrath and trying to reconcile himself to a new way of treating inmates, brutally, as the doctor would have it. And this is where the nightmare begins and ends. The Marquis is finally silenced.

Lotta says:
This is a beautiful production with lavish sets and furnishings. The acting is good all around; Rush moves superbly from a unscrupulous lout with flashy double-entendres to broken rebel. I particularly liked Phoenix. He’s the new talent to watch and is wonderful each time I see him. Winslet does a handy job of Madeleine too. Caine plays his part of the hideous doctor extremely well. The subject matter is at times hard to watch; much brutality, ugly imagery, blatant sexualism make for disturbing entertainment. It’s all rather bizarre (but nowhere near so as “The Cell”).

This film is an early release at selected theaters for Academy Award consideration.

Reviewed 11/22/00