Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Recently I saw the 1967 film adaptation of Marat/Sade – the well-know, though not too famous play by Peter Weiss. I was aware of its reputed quality and the prospect of a play within a play is generally something I cannot possibly refuse to watch. It basically recreates the atmosphere during the French Revolution and the events leading up to the assassination of the popular and influential journalist Jean-Paul Marat by the disillusioned Charlotte Corday in his own bathtub. Throughout its duration, the infamous Marquis de Sade, a patient in an insane asylum who has himself written a play about the death of Marat, has been permitted to stage an adaptation of it by using his fellow inmates as actors. Weiss’ play is set in 1804 during the Napoleonic Era, with the Revolution long over now.

The film itself can perhaps be best described as eerie. It makes use of only one setting – that of the asylum ward. This makes the film uncomfortable to watch as it forces you into this claustrophobic state of being and even though it is not a black-and-white film, its bleak, post-apocalyptic colours give us little else than slightly varying shades of grey, visible in most characters’ clothes. Indeed, hardly anything could be more distasteful to watch for the film is obviously not explicit in terms of language, nor does it make use of excessively graphic imagery; it is simply the truly repulsive way in which its two hours drag slowly and painfully, coercing you into abhorring it in every way possible. It is psychologically tense but then many films are; what actually distinguishes this particular one is its clinical coldness, its idiosyncratically dispassionate ambience which as I said, is seemingly perpetual in the slow unfolding of events. Indeed, they are not real ‘events’ in the conventional sense of the word but merely vivid simulations of real historical events, focusing mainly upon two starkly contrasting historical figures – Jean-Paul Marat and the Marquis de Sade. The former as a character in the actual play, is not even a tenth as impressive and fascinating as the latter. Marat’s physical appearance is of course in keeping with David’s iconic canvas Death of Marat but it is de Sade and his softly-spoken, pensive nature that protrudes each scene with an electrifying presence which let’s face it, can only be the focus of our latent admiration than merely the subject of ridicule. His equanimity and well-controlled manner only makes us ponder over the question of whether he ought to be in a mental asylum at all for he never truly shows signs of being clinically insane but merely stands passively by as an observer to most of the dealings of the other inmates, occasionally interfering in the process so as to guide them as the director of the play within a play. Patrick Magee’s masterful acting paints precisely such a picture of de Sade. His principal apathy is arguably not what the audience would have in mind, particularly when we consider that he is after all the author of 120 Days of Sodom. There is hardly anything outlandish about him though it does not take a quantum leap of the imagination to see through his composed behaviour which to me betrays powerful repressed desires and covert bitterness, channelled curiously through his cold disposition. He is confident but careful and not intrusive; his virulent conduct is marked by supreme coolness and seeming level-headedness, and his words are articulated in a detached, simple manner. He is still far from being a positively heroic figure but in a way, he reminds me of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and the character of Stavrogin, only considerably older. Unlike Stavrogin however, the character of de Sade is not especially revered by anyone and this is hardly surprising bearing in mind that we are dealing with people who are basically all nuts. Indeed, the qualities of appearance possessed by de Sade are completely irrelevant here and in fact, in this nightmarish realm of cold indifference, hardly anything is of any relevance at all as most of the characters are effectively doomed to remain in this mental ward for the rest of their insignificant lives; they are portrayed as leeches and nothing is done to enhance their position but on the contrary – everything is made as desolate and miserable as possible, undermining them constantly.
You become a puppet for the film’s director Peter Brook and his awe-inspiring machinations which compel you to abhor the characters and wish only the worst for them. Even the meek Charlotte Corday, intriguing as she is, makes for an unpleasant viewing and scarcely conjures up empathy from the audience.

Indeed, the ward within the film is hellish in its coldness, however oxymoronic that may sound; it is infinitely more depressing and bland than One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest simply because it is actually, the only setting in Marat/Sade.
Directly tying with this is the undercurrent of absurdism that creeps within this slow paced film. In fact, perhaps Peter Weiss would have had Kafka’s work in mind when writing the play, for I found that within the two-hour duration of the film, you are most unwelcomingly transformed into a cockroach, being placed on the same level as the actual characters who all seem to be physically trespassing into your own world. The net effect of all this is that you more or less become a host for their embryonic insanity and all boundaries between you and the characters simply disappear as you are effectively absorbed by their overwhelming eeriness and sinisterly-sounding songs. For me it does work similarly to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty which manifests itself in highly-dramatised scenes with the upshot being the ultimate illusion of gritty realism, which is meant to immerse the spectator into the often shockingly-powerful action of the play. Marat/Sade does this and does it brilliantly – aesthetically appealing only to hardcore fans of Kafka’s writing or perhaps Joy Division’s music. In fact, the atmosphere evoked within the film has much in common with the ethereal monotony of ‘The Eternal’ by Joy Division.

Marat/Sade does not compromise and does not at least care about the potential revulsion on the viewer’s part. It goes beyond that; it portrays a post-revolutionary world in a post-apocalyptic setting that does away with false idealism – a world where God is rid of. It works simultaneously as a biting satire for the French Revolution and as a cathartic tragedy that illustrates Man’s irrational side and how easily it is found provided it is situated against the backdrop of the right set of circumstances. I would even go as far as saying that human mental endurance should be tested through it and if you do come across it and watch it in its entirety, and if you do eventually grow fond of it, there is a reason for this and it is contained in the Marquis de Sade’s famous remark– ‘You are already dead to the world’.
Happy viewing.


At 25 March 2008 at 23:30 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, a film review, even the most glowing, has never once compelled me to actually see the thing. Yours, however, has filled me with the overwhelming and inexplicable need to see this movie. Curious.

At 26 March 2008 at 01:22 , Blogger Louis Berceli said...

Me and Barnes saw Quills a while back, which was about the same thing but likely done far more poorly. I'll have to track it down as well.

At 26 March 2008 at 15:39 , Blogger IPCHUK said...

I am glad the intentional intensity of the writing got your attention. It is an unpleasant film to watch and you may well end up hating it, but the thing is that all the actors along with the director are aware of this and that is why it works so well.

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