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Legacies of Sade: 50 years since The Libertine (1968)

When considering the idea of libertinism, the Marquis de Sade is one of the first historical figures that comes to mind. A libertine is potentially radical, although this could have positive and negative connotations. One who strives to satisfy any and all sexual urges may appear to be “liberated,” in some respects, but in light of actions that involve more than one person, a power dynamic is always created and violation of one by another is a common risk. In our contemporary moment libertinism is almost impossible unless the transgressor’s life is ruined by his actions (as libertines are almost always male), but even in the eighteenth century–the time of Sade–such a lifestyle was still difficult to follow even with aristocratic privileges. Indeed, the Marquis spent a good amount of time in jail, partially because of sexual indiscretions involving violence, (accidental) poisoning, and exploitation. However, Sade remained in prison far longer than his crimes called for, just as much because of the ideas and writings the fellow had which were considered dangerous. Thus, in actuality true libertinism can only exist or thrive in imaginary worlds brought forth by fantasy, creativity, and desire. The cinema is a perfect medium for these things.

Pasquale Festa Campinale’s 1968 film The Libertine does not particularly exist as an adaptation or close reading of Sade’s life or work, but the general theme of the film is related in a more adjacent way. The film explores the erotic journey of self-discovery embarked upon by our protagonist Mimi (Catherine Spaak), a young widow who studies sex literature and engages in a number of trysts with different men after she discovers her late husband spent a lot of time in a secret erotic utopia of a bachelor pad. Originally titled La Matriarca–or The Matriarch–in Italian, the English title, The Libertine, evokes an enthusiastic exploration of indulgent sexuality that is only made more ironic with our libertine being a woman–a gender not often historically related to the kind of erotic excess implied. It leaves one asking, does the English title refer to Mimi, or Franco, the late husband? By the time this film came out fifty years ago, a female libertine was long overdue.

The Libertine moves in a very comic rhythm that risks setting a tone quite distinct from Sade’s work, unless we take a more uncommon perspective on the latter, namely that much of his work includes darkly comedic elements that do not appeal to all readers. For example, when looking over the descriptions of the four protagonists in 120 Days of Sodom, or other character descriptions such as those of the crone-like storytellers, the hyperbolic appearance, penis size, etc, take on a virtually cartoonish character. If the reader takes a work like 120 Days… and focuses on it with solemn seriousness, the repetitive work of cruelty and lubricious excess runs the risk of becoming quite unpleasant very quickly. It has been speculated over how much irony Sade put into his work, and my prerogative suggests quite a bit. Thus, an Italian sex comedy from the late 1960’s does have the potential for a useful comparison with or likening to Sade’s work.

The audience stays with Mimi for virtually the entire film, with a long-running voiceover reinforcing or contrasting her action on screen. Within ten minutes of the start, she finds herself in her late husband’s clandestine sex paradise, full of horizontal and vertical mirrors everywhere, motion sensor lights, a rotating bed, a built in movie set up, and stag films starring none other than Franco himself. Almost as quickly as she acknowledges she has been married to a “sex maniac,” she is out the door and studying the text of Psychopathia Sexualis by Richard von Krafft-Ebing, a nineteenth century precursor to fellow Austro-German doctor Sigmund Freud.

Her lawyer Sandro (Gigi Proietti) thinks he successfully seduces Mimi after they meet at the secret destination, only to find out that it is she who trapped and seduced him. While her husband called her “the little saint,” her autodidactic study and practice of sex come quite easily to Mimi. The primary social matter explored in the film is the notion that a husband must treat his wife with “respect,” hence naturally cheating on her and sullying himself with other women. While this was probably more of an issue in late 1960’s Europe, it is probably a perspective still shared by deluded conservatives or upper class individuals in some areas.

As Lindsay Anne Hallam notes in her book Screening the Marquis de Sade, the marriages in Sade’s writing are jokes that make a mockery of the religious and social institution, highlighting their arbitrary meaninglessness. Like Sade on a number of occasions, Campinale confronts the hypocrisy of bourgeois marriage in The Libertine, giving the coddled and repressed wife an opportunity to explore her own sexuality outside of matrimony. Of course, this is a common set up for European art cinema of the time, with Buñuel’s Belle de Jour coming out one year earlier in 1967 and Antonioni’s portraits of repressed housewives like Red Desert (1964), and The Eclipse (1962).

Much of the bawdy activity takes place off screen, leaving The Libertine to be a fun and wacky experience that are not over the top. It relies more on thinking about sex than attempting to simulate it. After Mimi seduces her dentist, she is letting herself into men’s locker rooms, coming after her faux-macho tennis partner. Thinking she is a prostitute, a man picks her up on the side of the road and pays her after the transaction; instead of finding this degrading or off-putting, Mimi finds it gleeful. Mid-way through the picture, Luigi Pistilli shows up for a few scenes as the sadist businessman “Mr X.” That experience is followed by the wild and somewhat ridiculous jungle fantasies of Fabrizio (Renzo Montagnani), the husband of Mimi’s best friend Claudia (Fabienne Dali). It should be noted that Mimi is just as open to experimenting with the fantasies brought forth by all of these male lovers, but at the same time she always is ultimately the one in control.

Mimi finally meets her best match in her doctor, Carlo de Marchi, played by the dashing Jean-Louis Trintignant. It should be noted that 1968 was a great year for Trintignant, who also starred in the bizarre giallo Death Laid an Egg, and The Man who Lies, directed by that Sadeian rascal Alain Robbe-Grillet. In The Libertine, he goes from doctor to hobbyhorse, once Mimi realizes that she derives erotic pleasure from riding on men’s backs. At first it seems disappointing that the two ultimately get married, but Campinale makes sure the audience knows that Mimi’s second marriage is one based on love, mutual negotiation, and pleasure, instead of the empty formalities she was living with before the start of the film. Before Mimi rides Carlo off into the sunset, he makes sure to destroy her former husband’s private domicile, not because he is disgusted by the torrid nature of it all, but because he wants to start a new, better, and more understanding relationship with her.

Campinale tackled themes of bondage and sadism just as overtly a year later in 1969’s Check to the Queen (aka The Slave); The Libertine is only one example of the director’s cinematic shenanigans of erotic excess. In some ways the latter appears tame by contemporary standards, although perhaps not to all audiences, seeing as how an odd leftist conservatism has gained footing in our culture. Yet The Libertine has much to show about depictions of sexuality half a century ago. In addition to Krafft-Ebing there are preoccupations with other psychoanalytic perspectives, with Trintignant waxing philosophical at one point, stating “Modern civilization is based on suppression.” Of course not all couples bring up Freud during foreplay, although it may be one thing an over-analytical mind conjures up. Although Sade is often associated with corporeal themes, his writing is anything but mindless or abstract. His libertines were highly structured and systematic in and of themselves. Mimi’s studious curiosity exists mentally as well as physically.

About Joseph E. Dwyer

Born on a Friday the 13th, Joseph Dwyer has an ambivalent relationship with horror cinema that ranges from visceral pleasure to investigative schizoanalytics. He holds two master’s degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, as both a filmmaker and theorist. He is unmoved by most contemporary art, and currently looks to the horror genre as a potential space for new perspectives on desire and dissent.

2 comments

  1. It’s ”Campanile”, not ”Campinale”.

  2. I saw this in a theatre in 1968, as a very young man, still a virgin. It was quite an eye-opener.

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