“No actual fucking!” as the author says, but there are plenty of other pleasures in this lurid ’60s rarity whose authorship remains contested.
American International Picture’s De Sade (starring Keir Dullea as the Marquis) was released in 1969, and more or less disappeared thereafter. Which was a shame, because I always wanted to see this legendary oddity. Thirty-one years later, the film has finally shown up relatively uncut on cable television (Showtime), no doubt anticipating the release of Phil Kaufman’s Quills, a big-budget art film with Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis and Kate Winslett as his willing accomplice.
But back to the 1969 De Sade. The film was shot in West Germany and other European locations, and nominally directed by Cyril (Cy) Endfield, with music by “Billy Strange” and cinematography by “Richard Angst.” (One could hardly find a more suspicious-sounding list of names!) Although Roger Corman’s name is nowhere on the credits, Corman is said to have produced the film, and the Internet Movie Database credits it to three directors: Endfield, Corman, and Gordon Hessler.
Looking at the film itself, most of it was clearly directed by either Corman or someone who had carefully studied and attempted to duplicate the most obvious aspects of Corman’s style (which could have been Hessler, insofar as he also directed AIP’s Cormanesque The Oblong Box). The film bears no resemblance to any of Endfield’s prior films (of which the best known is Zulu), and one suspects he had very little to do with it – other than to lend it a little prestige. Thematically and structurally, its closest relatives are two earlier Corman films, The Masque of the Red Death and The Trip. (The multi-director method of shooting is reminiscent of Corman’s The Terror.)
Like The Masque of the Red Death, De Sade begins with the fairy tale-like image of an old woman gathering sticks in the woods. Then, as in the openings of so many of Corman’s Poe films, we see a man on horseback approaching what appears to be a deserted castle or chateau. The man is, of course, Keir Dullea as Louis Alphonse Donatien, the Marquis de Sade. (Physically, Dullea’s chiseled good looks resemble those of two other Corman protagonists of this period, Peter Fonda in The Trip and John Phillip Law in Von Richthofen and Brown.)
Arriving at the ruined chateau, De Sade finds himself locked inside with an ancient tormentor (John Huston as the Abbe De Sade) who may or may not be a product of De Sade’s imagination. The ancient priest draws De Sade’s attention to a candlelit stage upon which we see performed scenes from De Sade’s life, thereby triggering a series of flashbacks within flashbacks and fantasies within fantasies that constitute the bulk of the film. Although De Sade’s screenplay is credited to Richard Matheson – who wrote most of Corman’s Poe films – the fantasy flashback structure clearly derives from The Trip, which Matheson had no involvement in. Mirroring Dennis Hopper’s relationship to Peter Fonda in The Trip, John Huston plays a combination master of ceremonies and judge, who invites De Sade to reflect upon the sins of his past.
Since this is 1969, there is little overt sadomasochism in the film. De Sade is presented mainly as a heterosexual libertine, and the red-tinted orgy sequences show lots of bare tits and ass but of course no actual fucking. However, a plot begins to unfold. De Sade is represented as a victim caught in the machinations of two evil parent figures, his uncle the Abbe (Huston), and his wealthy mother-in-law played by Lili Palmer. Palmer’s character forces De Sade into an arranged marriage with the plain but affecting Anna Massey. In the meantime, De Sade becomes obsessed with Massey’s sister (Senta Berger), an “anima” figure whom he pursues throughout the film – just as Peter Fonda pursued Salli Sachse throughout the hallucinations of The Trip. To the extent that he is presented as such, De Sade is heroic because he pursues his sexual proclivities openly, as compared to the uncle, mother-in-law, and other parent figures who hypocritically hide their kinks beneath cloaks of respectability. In the film’s most genuinely horrifying sequence, De Sade as a boy witnesses his uncle (Huston, who remains the same age throughout) and an aunt sexually toying with and whipping a servant girl in a barn. When the boy is discovered watching, the uncle forces the servant girl to whip him while his aunt restrains him against her heaving bosom. This flashback is intercut with its “present day” representation as theater during which De Sade, now in costume as his uncle, gleefully whips a straw mannequin representing himself as a boy.
The most remarkable thing about the film is its avant-garde Trip-like technique. In prison (at the behest of his mother-in-law), De Sade peers through a porthole and observes his uncle seducing the woman of his dreams in some other place and time. The story, such as it is, moves forward through associative montage rather than linear narrative progression. Fantasy and reality are never clearly distinguished. On occasion, we return to the overall framing sequence – De Sade watching his life as theater – during which De Sade and his uncle engage in philosophical debate. De Sade: “You made me what I am.” Uncle: “I thought you believed that mankind was evil by nature.” De Sade: “You seduced me.” Uncle: “No, I initiated you.”
The life-as-theater framing sequence is in turn framed by a sequence in which an aged De Sade lies dying on a bed in a convent somewhere presided over by Mother Superior Barboura Morris (another Corman regular). As he closes his eyes, we return to the film’s opening image of the younger De Sade approaching the ruined chateau. As in so many Corman films (e.g., Not of This Earth), the end returns us to the beginning.
The music by “Billy Strange” sounds an awful lot like it was composed by Les Baxter – who scored most of Corman’s Poe films. Richard Angst, on the other hand, turns out to have been a real German cinematographer who worked with, among many others, Fritz Lang.