Marat/Sade


Year 1967

Patrick Magee as   Marquis de Sade
Ian Richardson as Jean-Paul Marat
Michael Williams as Herald  
Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday
Clifford Rose as Monsieur Coulmier
Brenda Kempner   as Madame Coulmier
Ruth Baker as Mademoiselle Coulmier  
 
Director - Peter Brook
Screenwriter - Adrian Mitchell
Playwright - Peter Weiss
Play Translator - Geoffrey Skelton
Play Producer - David Merrick

For starters, the real title for this movie is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. But that didn't easily trip off of the tongue, so it was shortened to Marat/Sade.

The plot of this movie pretty thin. It is how the inmates of an insane asylum react to a play about Jean-Paul Marat when Marat is explained to them through the eyes of the Marquis de Sade.

Who was Jean-Paul Marat? He was the Thomas Paine of the French Revolution writing about freedom. But where Paine wrote of man's need for liberty, Marat wrote of the need for the mass class butchering of those who opposed his ideas. "The basis of all free government is that no people can be legally subject to another people," is part of one of his quotes. Basically he was for the abolishing of the monarchy and all of its fingers. If you ignore Napoleon's death toll, and the rise of Napoleon was an outcome of the abolishment and execution of the monarchy, Marat can take a measure of responsibility for about a half-million deaths.

As for de Sade, everyone is familiar with Sadism. Yet de Sade wasn't just an indulgent hedonist with extreme tastes. His sexual interests and proclivities were scandalous at a time when debauchery was considered commonplace. But his political views are what are on display in the movie. De Sade believed that no one should have the right to property. Quite the little socialist was our boy de Sade.

Marat and de Sade were buddies working together to overthrow the monarchy. Yet they had a falling out about, of all things, death. Marat was for killing everyone who opposed his ideals and de Sade was for pardoning and moving on. (You'd think that Marat, the self-proclaimed man of the people, would be the more forgiving, wouldn't you?) And this brings us to the theme of the movie.

Who was right? Marat or de Sade?

History tells us that de Sade was committed to the Asylum of Charenton as a political prisoner and there he wrote plays which were performed by the inmates. It was therapy for the inmates. But de Sade never wrote a play about Marat, so that part of this movie is fictional.

So German playwright Adrian Mitchell took it upon himself to write the play that the Marquis de Sade could have written. And he, Mitchell, also decided that it should be performed by the inmates of the asylum that housed de Sade. After that, Geoffrey Skelton translated the play into English. Were there embellishments? Probably. Then David Merrick produced this for Broadway. Did David Merrick, a showman on par with P.T. Barnum and William Castle, further modify the original play? Undoubtedly. Adrian Mitchell adapted the play for screen and finally Peter Brook put his directorial stamp on the whole thing. Did it resemble the original play? Probably for the most part.

That's the history of the movie. What about the movie itself? Well, it's a play within a movie and that play is, at least within the scope of the movie, being performed in 1808. In this description, whevener the "play" is mentioned, it means the performance of the play within the movie. In the movie, there is a back-and-forth discourse between revolutionary aristocrat and physician at Charenton Monsieur Coulmier (Rose) and de Sade (Magee) as well as the play itself.

The play itself, as the title suggests, is about the last days of Marat (Richardson). Really it's a sort of history lesson and you know how dreary those can be. It's mostly a listing of events of the "this happened" and the "then this happened" variety.

An attempt is made to enliven the procedings with the peccadilloes of lunatics performing as actors but this approach not only fails to convince but often detracts from the meat of the play. The meat is the series of exchanges between de Sade, the pacifist, and Marat, the butcher.

The movie tries really hard to insist that watching or performing in the play affects people in real-time and everyone becomes part of the play in the end. Either that or it means that watching the play will drive you mad.

Probably the former because the play is steeped in symbolism. The darkened audience is separated from the brightly lighted performers by bars making the audience detached and mute witnesses like the pre-French Revolution aristocrats. De Sade is whipped by Charlotte Corday's (Jackson) hair rather than a real whip but her gentle hair is as painful to his flesh as leather straps. When the play approaches the assassination of Marat, curtains are drawn and gas lamps are lit to signify the approaching darkness of death. Oh yeah, it's all there and then some.

There are some slick camera shots of people disappearing from the shot by lying down or moving to the side. Very cool camera work.

And there's the sassy chassis of Madame Coulmier (Kempner). During slow scenes, of which there are many, the editor wisely cuts in shots of Madame Coulmier's reaction. Madame Coulmier is a solid, big woman in a low cut dress who makes you stick around for a minute longer than you otherwise might and that's long enough to get past the dreary passages. She only has one line of dialog, but the way she carries herself makes sure that she never gets lost in a scene.

Mademoiselle (with friend), Madame, and Monsieur Coulmier

What's good about the movie? Well, the subject matter is quite thought provoking. De Sade as an intellectual is a revelation and so is the importance of Marat. I mean that we should all know about Louis XIV and Marie Antionette and the guillotine. But how many of us know about the philosophies of De Sade and especially Marat and how they shaped the French Revolution? There are some moments of theory encapsulated for easy absorption within this movie.

A lot of the acting is extraordinary. Patrick Magee, of A Clockwork Orange fame (he's the husband that is casually destroyed by Alex), is remarkable as de Sade. He won a Tony for his stage portrayal and based on his movie depiction, his power translates to the silver screen. Michael Williams as the herald is equally captivating. He is the connection between the actors and the audience with asides, insights, explanations, and justifications. Ian Richardson as Marat is good but not up to Magee or Williams. It doesn't help that his dialog is not nearly as mesmerizing as that of the other two actors.

Jackson, Magee, Kempner, and Susan Williamson

The use of symbols is good as well although sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. Red paint, white paint, and blue paint for the French flag but in the middle is black paint for death. And the colors are poured into a bucket that would not be able to have been seen by the audience of the play, only the audience of the movie.

Which gets us to some of the problems with movie. There's a lack of credulity and consistency. The inmates of the asylum are insane. But not always. One character cannot get his lines right in his first scene but then never flubs another line. An organ is heard being played by the Insane Asylum Sitting Band, but there's no such instrument in the band. The play is supposed to be for the audience in the asylum but the important angles in the movie cannot be seen by the audience in the asylum theater.

There are unbelievable responses to the actions in the play. After one scene in the play (when I say play, I mean the play within the movie), Mademoiselle Coulmier (Baker) jumps to her feet and shouts, "Vive la Revolution!" Well, I didn't get the swell of emotion to justify that outcry and considering that she would be a victim of the revolution I doubt if she'd be so enthusiastically swayed so quickly to offering herself up to being a victim.

What's even worse is the need to add songs to the whole proceedings. Songs? Not catchy ditties or anything. More like the recitation of a telephone book to music. Is there rhyme? Meter? Nah! It's a song because there are instruments playing. Heck, the singers are barely reciting the same word at the same time. Consider heavy English accents of the actors and add to that some non-synchronized singing and crowd chanting and it is almost enough to either turn the movie off or turn the subtitles on.

Not all of the acting is good, either. I've always thought of Glenda Jackson as a good actress. Not in this movie. Jackson's asylum personna is supposed to have a psychosis of catalepsy. What I saw was the behavior of a drunk. She staggered, stumbled, and twitched in the most exaggerated fashion. Maybe it was good acting. For me, it felt artificial to an extreme degree. And her delivery of lines made elocutions of William Shatner and Christopher Walken seem like the steady sound of droning bees. In other words, Glenda Jackson was as pleasant as intermittent power failures while getting a tooth drilled.

The dialog was also hit and miss. De Sade's words and Magee's deliveries were admirable. The level of clearly thought out logic from de Sade was so far above the rest of movie's hodgepodge that it made me wonder if de Sade's works weren't being quoted verbatim. If so, it meant that the paucity of talent among the writers of Marat/Sade was evident. If not, then why wasn't more care taken in the dialog of Marat, Monsieur Coulmier, Corday, et. al.?

Remember how I mentioned embellishments? The year of the movie, 1967, was about the time when the situation in Vietnam was starting to escalate. So of course the obligatory forced anti-war message seems to refer a 1967 issue rather than the 1808 Peninsular War which was the war being fought at the time of the events in the movie.

The ending is supposed to be shocking and surprising. I found it trite and predictable, although I have to say it's about as convincing as the earlier "Vive la Revolution!" outburst.

The movie is slow, Glenda Jackson is tiresome, the intermittent songs require fortitude, the dialog is often unintelligle. But, the concepts are intriging (de Sade reminded me of Ayn Rand!), some of the dialog and acting are top notch, and it's a slanted take on the philophies in play during the French Revolution. In spite of all its limitations, I'm glad I watched Marat/Sade.

You know, there are no pictures of Brenda Kempner as Madame Coulmier on the web. Let's help change that.

The hat trick (or third picture)

There's no nudity, profanity, or blasphemy. There's implied rape at the end. It's creative but not successfully so. It's not really a guy film but it's definitely not a chick flick. Some concepts are dated, but the primary philosophy of socialism and greed is timeless. Prepare for a boring and tedious excursion and you may be happily entertained.


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