Whatever happened, the result remains an incoherent shambles on screen. The influences of the various directors seem to drag the film every which way. On one level, Richard Matheson appears to have wanted to make the film as a serious historical biography of the Marquis de Sade. This is an interesting idea de Sades life is certainly a dramatic and fertile one. Some of Mathesons intention remains in the finished film, albeit garbled, where we see de Sade as a tragic figure who undergoes a downfall and in classical tradition realizes the need to accept responsibility regarding the indulgence of his vices. However, it is still one of Richard Mathesons lesser screenplays many of the scenes give the appearance of having been written to convey maximum information rather than dramatically carry the film.
While Richard Matheson was interested in making a serious biopic, somebody else appears to have wanted to make De Sade into a French New Wave film. The film keeps flipping between reality and illusion, between flashbacks to the past and then pulling back to reveal them as being staged. The result is a film that lacks any linear narrative and seems like a series of scenes that have been randomly edited together without any type of cohesion. One never understands what the flipping between reality and stage is meant to mean all it comes across as is a theatrical artifice. The film also feels like it has been tugged in a third direction by someone else coming along and deciding to spice it up with a number of orgy scenes, tinted in purple and crimson, which give the clear impression that they have been shot by a different hand.
For all that, De Sade is an incredibly tame film considering the person it chooses as its subject. It only dances around any suggestion of sadism (the phrase that de Sade gave his name to). At most we have a brief scene of the boy de Sade being whipped by his uncles mistress and another of him getting turned on as he whips some girls. A potentially interesting scene with de Sade whipping a woman with a sword emerges with laughable tameness in that the entire scene is directed focused only on the faces of Keir Dullea and the woman. For all the time spent on de Sades vices, these go no further than scenes of Keir Dullea frolicking with bare-breasted girls. Keir Dullea is okay in the part, John Huston badly miscast as his uncle.
The life of the Marquis de Sade has proven one that filmmakers have regularly visited. Other adaptations of his life, all of which, unlike this, focus on his imprisonment at the Charenton asylum, are 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 (1966) where De Sade was played by Patrick Magee; the Italian exploitation film Marquis de Sade (1994); the hilariously obscene Marquis (1989), which re-enacted de Sades story with talking animals; the Russian-made Marquis de Sade (1996) with Nick Mancuso; Quills (2000) starring Geoffrey Rush; and the French Sade (2000).
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