Marat/Sade (Peter Brooks, 1967) is a play within a film, showing the inmates of an asylum performing Sade’s (Patrick Magee) play 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. Quills (Philip Kaufman, 2000) sees Sade (Geoffrey Rush) also as an inmate of Charenton, writing texts, novels and plays performed by the inmates, titillating the women and persecuted by authoritarian figures. The films share their setting and primary character. Both include the play-within-a-film format carried through their shared genesis as plays. Both also share their emphasising the textuality within the play within a play. In each film Sade writes dialogue for multiple characters and the films emphasise Sade’s character as a writer rather than a perpetrator of the excesses to which he points. Indeed, neither film represents any acts of sadism, or even sexual perversion, with the vague exception of Marat’s (Ian Richardson) imminent murder in Marat. Both films deal with the materiality of words, with the nature of performance and will, and with the ethics of altering paradigmatic structures of logic and desire to both oppress and liberate ‘man’.

Sade as Non-Sade: Description and Imagination

In The 120 Days of Sodom Sade both highlights and mourns the disjunctive relationship between imagination and action. The Bishop laments, ‘if the [crime] I perpetrate does not combine as much of the atrocious, of the base, of the vicious, of the deceitful, of the treacherous as may be possibly imagined, the sensation is not merely faint, there is no sensation at all.’ To this Durcet responds, ‘I must declare that my imagination has always outdistanced my faculties… I have conceived of a thousand times more and better than I have done and I have even complained against nature who, while giving me the desire to outrage her has always deprived me of the means’ (364). Simone de Beauvoir extends this inherent lack in the (in)capabilities of the human borne of the disjunct between imagination, will and the possibilities of flesh: ‘If Sade devoted himself to [eroticism] with such energy, shamelessness and persistence, he did so because he attached greater importance to the stories he wove around the acts of pleasure than to the contingent happenings; he chose the imaginary’ (9). Sexuality as ritual, pleasure as performance, and the prevalence of the spoken word inextricable from the body illuminate Sade as not simply purveyor or describer of eroticism.

Sade’s sexual philosophies are as much discursive as they are corporeal and each element envelops the other inextricably. Sade evokes imagination to destabilise the limits by which man, constructed through discourses of morality, religion and science, limits himself. Sade’s lists of perversions are matched in their depravity only by their speed. As soon as one lexicon of depravity is established – copraphagia, paedophilia, rape and murder – the narrator, and thus the observer, is hurled forward onto the next. The elements of movement in Sade are what makes rather than keeps him perverse, writing and imagining. Acts are reified by their critics, not by Sade himself, who is already moving onto the next limit, the next ophidian distortion of desire, flesh and ethics. The theatre is a work of imagination. Even historical stories, and thus history itself, are created and recreated through tales, contorted and sculpted by the modern paradigms which write them. Sade is represented more as a characterisation rather than historical figure. It is his philosophies more than his nature or persona which these two films are about. Sade in both films is adamantly a figment of his own imagination in his compulsion to liberate man as autonomous. Sade is writer, poet, playwright, but not really person. He is an undeveloped character. In Quills his need to write is more maniacal than his libidinal urges, in Marat Sade reads his own dialogue, thus doubling himself as both author and character. He is speech and word but not essence.

Cinesadism: Sade, Cinema, Theatre

Marat and Quills resist creating a characterisation of Sade as an insane, cruel debaucher and resonant with Sodom Sade’s ‘insanity’ is matched in Marat/Sade by the vacuous inanity of the monarchy, and in Quills by the depravity of the doctors and naivety of the clergy. The heterotopic asylum exists in an alternate reality where perception is less synthetic than material and insanity is an alternate paradigm rather than a failed sanity. The spectacle of the mad is structured in Marat as a theatrical panopticon, seen as the inmates fondle the bars which separate the ‘stage’ from their audience. Marat is played out in its entirety as a play, but does not exclude the dismembering aspects the cinematic camera affords. This plays with the tension of Sade being unfilmable. ‘I believe there is nothing more allergic to the cinema than Sade’ (223) claims Foucault. However in these two films, particularly Marat’s hermeneutic theatrical world, cinema does not succeed theatre, but extends the palimpsest outwards, creating a new layer or skin upon the surfaces of performance and spectatorship. These surfaces include: performers of the play; performers playing the observers; imagined theatre audience; camera as autonomous observer; finally, the layer of the cinema spectator. Maintaining and emphasising the theatrical aspect of its own construction allows Marat to similarly maintain what redeems it from Foucault’s anxieties of filming Sade: ‘The meticulousness, the ritual, the rigorous ceremonial form that all the senses of Sade assume exclude the supplementary play of the camera. The least addition or suppression, the smallest ornament, are intolerable. There is no place for an image. The blanks must not be filled except by bodies and desires’ (223). The glaring white lighting of the cell’s landscape in Marat leaves nothing except the bodies which occupy the space. The speeches of Marat and Sade also occupy the space with words that evoke, reflect and create desire without needing secondary representations of referents. The words alone construct, authored by Sade physically and conceptually and void of any visual interpretation through enactment or symbol.

In its theatrical incarnation, the ritualised aspects of Sade can be maintained without appearing ridiculous. Every mask, every costume, draws attention to its own constructed nature, rather than invisibly suturing to the characters’ bodies and creating signification invested by the director and seamlessly representing characters, their function and symbolism unconsciously to the audience. Even though Sade is costumed, his is a vague and generic ‘older time’ costume, devoid of the frills and fetishistic flounce of Quills, or the equally fetishistic Nazi updating of Sade in such films as Pasolini’s Salo (1976) or The Night Porter (Liliana Cavini, 1974). But the storytelling aspects of all these films maintains ritualism and the emphasis on the constructed nature of the Sadean relationship between words, bodies, desire and act. In Quills it is Sade’s proclivity to spectacle and performance which outrages more than the content of both the texts and the play, which is a simple mimetic critique of the cruelty of traditional heterosexual paradigms. The play derides Doctor Royal-Collard’s (Michael Caine) demand for sex from his soon to be bride Simone (Amelia Warner). Here rape is banal and dominance over the weak is seen as inevitable in the indoctrination of female sexuality into society. This confirms Foucault’s claim that ‘Nazism was not invented by the great erotic madmen of the twentieth century but by the most sinister, boring and disgusting petit-bourgeois imaginable’ (226). Only the madman, so resonant with the artist, writer and philosopher, can invest torture with a constructedness, an acknowledged ritual which sets itself apart from established paradigms simply taken to the extreme. In Marat, Sade criticises nature and its cruelty. The cruelty of the Nazis, bourgeois and priests is simply an Id-like compulsion taken to the extreme. It is retrogressive and infantile brutality, not the philosophical created theatre of cruelty of the Sadean ritual. Klossowski writes: ‘While Freud only envisages life at the organic level, Sade admits of no difference between life at the organic and inorganic level’ (78). Freud’s description of the baby having to defer its demand for immediate pleasure, which includes the instinct to take and destroy at will, is propped onto desire, or treib. Nazis are thus big babies, reintroducing the instinctual aspects of infantilism before significations of deferral and abstraction of demand occurred. Nazis de-signify, returning to a more ‘natural’ selfishness, Sade to a refined, over-signified merciless which must identify mercy in order to repudiate it.

Text and Materiality

Collard’s disgust that ‘flesh and blood is no match for the printed page’ points to the horrors in traditional sexuality as a failure at both imagination and the limits of materiality in its encounter with the mind. What Collard fails to realise, and what both the Bishop and the Durcet understand in their laments, is that the word is flesh, that it has its own materiality. The word does not represent or reflect action. Thought both materialises the self and are affective materiality, where the flesh is another fold of the brain. Words mobilise and words come from mobilisation, through imagination which is infinite rather than limited by the acceptable or even the possible. As Klossowski pointed out above, the perceived inorganic aspect of word is no different to the organic drives or flesh. The use of words to titillate, the compulsive storytelling in Sodom and Sade as a writer not a libertine, in both films, is the actualisation of desire and pleasure. Reading is immanent sexuality and pointing to imminent acts; word as not instead of pleasure. The mad do not believe lies or delusions within a sane world, but signify that very world differently. ‘Sade is perfectly aware that to destroy all things is not to destroy the world, for the world is not only universal affirmation but universal destruction’ (Blanchot 93). Theirs is not a destruction of the world through a failed perception of reality but the experience of the materiality of signification as actual.

Artaud states ‘we must now consider the purely material aspect of this language’ (244). For Artaud, theatre is the activation of the language of dreams, which is also the language of imagination and the insane, the alternate languages of the possibility that alternative materialisations are indeed available, that the flesh and blood are always and necessarily involved in performance: voice vibration, gestural expression, proprioceptivity and kinaesthetic sensorial. Sade smashes the mirror into which he stares at his reflection in Quills because his tales are not reflections but activations, ‘this naked language of the theatre, a language that is not virtual but real…to transgress the ordinary limits of art and speech, in order to realise actively, that is magically, in real terms, a kind of total creation in which man can only resume his place between dreams and events’ (Artaud 245). When those outraged by Sade’s work cry that one cannot write such things, Sade shows that indeed one can and, in this way, overcome the physical limits of reality. Reality is unreasonable. Morality is contingent. So to challenge morality’s imposition of signifying limits onto reality can point to alternate realities.

But these are plays, and so they are simply versions of a possible many. This is the theatre where the audience await the next play while watching the current. ‘Sade’s doctrine is nothing more or less than the logical consequence of these moments that deny reason’ (Bataille 168). One must create an alternate reality and then play it out in the real in order to change the very body which occupies the real. If the body has limits in one world, change the world and the body will follow. Religion is a deferral to an established text of fancy, while Sade’s compulsion to write overrides his compulsion to read, for which The Abbe du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) criticises him as an artist. In Marat Sade intersperses his treatises on acts of cruelty with rituals of dance, of song, of costume and make up, the body existing differently to manifest the self into the different reality. The designified howls and guttural expressions of the inmates juxtaposes with the portrait framing of Sade and Marat during their philosophical discourses. But rather than these scenes opposing each other, they inflect. The real opposition lies not in the narrative unfurling in time between the spoken and the physical but in space between those on the inside of the cage/stage and those watching from the outside. In Quills Sade exclaims, ‘I will carve new orifices where there were none before!’ with his quill and with his body. The suit of words he creates when denied paper is his body expressed differently in the world by being carved with text. For each word there is a vocal vibration, for each expression an expressive gesture, thus materialising the new body into the new world.  

Sade, Autonomy, Ethics

The great irony in Quills and Marat being set in asylums, performed by the mad, comes precisely from the illogical relegation to power and privilege afforded the sovereign man, the king, the clergy, the doctor, the president. This is possibly also from whence comes the compulsion to ‘madness’ and the creation of alternate realities. These are the depraved characters of Sodom and the sacrificed of the revolution. Marat is with the mad, in the arena which is occupied by he as revolutionary, Sade as artist and insane people as delusional. Powerful men are homogenised and in these films oscillate between being disdainfully and unimaginatively evil or idiotic. This contradicts the protagonists of Sodom all being powerful men. Sade’s ambivalent and problematic relationship to his own position as both bourgeois and incarcerated is here evoked.

In perhaps the greatest irony which is the very premise of both films, Sade is not simply the most sympathetic but also the most ethical character. It is he who laments and pities the poor, the subjugated and the insane, resonant with Bataille’s claim that ‘was he not to adopt political views based on the welfare of the masses? Was he not horror struck to see from his window in the prison to which his opposition to the methods of the Terror had bought him, the guillotine at work? And finally did he not shed “tears of blood” over a lost manuscript in which he had striven to reveal – to other men observe – the truth of the insignificance of other people’ (169). This insignificance is the real horror, formed of the real depravity and cruelty of man, completely illogical coming from the new humanist Cartesian man of logic. Bataille claims that Sade’s language is the language of the victim. The masochist demands, and can demand of himself, hurting his own flesh and taking himself as both persecutor and persecuted. The Abbe in Quills has his flagellator to demean himself in the face of God and thus affirm his existence as a man beneath his deity. The sadist needs the other in order to depreciate it to nothing. ‘From the moment at which “being the master of myself” means “being master of others”, from the moment at which my independence ceases to derive from my own will, but comes from the dependence of others on me, it is clear that I remain linked to the others and that I have need of them, if only to annihilate them’ (Blanchot 85-86). Sade’s writing frequently invokes the status of the victim, raising it to a zenith of social value, in order to destroy it and thus make the sadist’s own status and power extreme. Destroying the valuable, and valuing the filthy, both work to empower the individual as able to signify the world himself rather than navigate a world signified by others. This he has in common with the revolutionary and the madman. Without the victim, explicitly the valued victim, there is no power, no pleasure and no self. Blanchot’s work on Sade describes the failure man has to express autonomy. The masochist (particularly the religious zealot) uses sexual violence to affirm his deferral of autonomy to a higher order dictate of existence.  He is able to be because he phantasises his autonomy comes from and belongs to an abstract other who dictates the rules of his behaviour and actions.

The sadist can create the sacred out of the profane and murder the beloved while loving the filthy. Conditions and constraints of existence are all able to be mobilised by Sade’s sovereign man. His autonomy is less in the world than in making the world like the playwright. The sadist engages in extreme acts which extricate him from the masses, both physically through destroying the other, and paradigmatically by acting against or outside laws of morality that bind the masses to each other. ‘From [Sade’s] point of view violence is the opposite of the solidarity with other people implicit in logic, laws and language’ (Bataille 189). The act of writing is the moment where the individual can control everything, create anything, and set himself off upon a trajectory of pure creation of self. Without the ability to create oneself and thereby control one’s actions freely and autonomously, one cannot act ethically. One’s actions will always be deferred to and thus able to be blamed upon the higher orders by which one comes into being. In a seeming contradiction Beauvoir writes: ‘Sade probably thought himself safe in the fool’s paradise which seemed separated from the world of responsibility by an impenetrable wall’ (9). The screen, the bars of the cell and the stage are all walls which incarcerate Sade with the fool.

Both films, however, sympathise with the fools and represent the sane as inherently foolish. So is the spectator thus separated from responsibility? Or does the speed with which Sade moves from one mobilisation of pleasure, depravity and philosophical politics mean the spectator must occupy the space between the fool and the normal, contemplating their place. The characters of Marat, particularly Sade himself, speak directly to the camera in close up. The mid shot and the close up are available only in cinema and not in theatre, which shifts the bodies on stage from theatrical to cinematic. This shifts the intended viewer from the theatre audience to us, bypassing the paradigms of established logic and power. Writing plays not only allows Sade autonomous self-realisation within the institution set up explicitly for those who defy logic, law and language, but also it allows him to make others (literally and conceptually) act.

In both films Sade’s ability to inflame and infect others with his ideas, to make them act, is what makes him dangerous and outrageous to those within normalising systems. In his negotiation with God he makes himself God: ‘I am pleased with the evil I do to others as God is pleased with the evil he does to me’ (Sade, quoted by Klossowski 69). The lunatics defer to Sade via their script, but they know it is a script from which they read. The moralists and ecclesiastics take their scripts as law, as truth and as right. Paradoxically the fear of incitement can only exist with a committed belief in actions being deferred to laws that come outside of self. Only those who believe in obedience and deferral of responsibilities of action (i.e. the unethical) can fear Sade as a mobiliser of depravity, violence and revolution. In Marat and Quills then, inevitably Sade is one of the masses within a heterotopic world not dissimilar to the synthetically created world of Sodom. Simultaneously he is the master manipulator of all bodies, oppressing and exploiting them through his words while relying on their oppressible nature in order to exist. He is sickened by his incarceration as denying him autonomy, for which elsewhere he must rely on the very entities he deplores, oppresses and destroys. In these films writing, acting, performing, words, flesh, desire and ideas converge as the relationship between the torturer and the tortured, materiality and philosophy.

Works Cited:

Artaud, Antonin. (1976) Collected Writings. Trans. Helen Weaver. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bataille, Georges. (2001) Eroticism. Trans. Mary Dalwood. London: Penguin.

Beauvoir, Simone de. (1990) ‘Must We Burn Sade.’ Trans. Annette Michelson. In Sade, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de. (1990) The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. London: Arrow.

Blanchot ‘Sade’s Reason’. (1995) In The Blanchot Reader. Ed. and trans. Michael Holland. London: Blackwell.

Foucault, Michel. (1994) ‘Sade: Sargeant of Sex.’ In Aesthetics. Ed. James Faubion. Trans. Robert Hurley. London: Penguin.

Klossowski, Pierre. (1990) ‘Nature as Destructive Principle.’ Trans. Joseph McMahon. Sade, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de. (1990) The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. London: Arrow.

Sade, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de. (1990) The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. Trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver. London: Arrow.