The Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has been imprisoned by Napoleon for writing sexually explicit novels Justine and Juliette. Whilst in prisoned at the Charenton Insane Asylum, de Sade uses a laundry maid (Kate Winslet) to smuggle out his scripts. The Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who runs the asylum, battles constantly with the rebellious de Sade, until eventually Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a conditioning expert, is brought in to 'cure' the man.
As soon as I realised that this was a sexually-charged film about an essentially pornographic writer, set in Paris and starring Kate Winslet and Geoffrey Rush, I immediately set a counter in my header for how long it would take for either of them to strip naked and/or copulate with someone, most likely the other actor. Surprisingly, their nudity did not occur until past the 75-minute mark, and their on-screen sexual shenanigans were never witnessed.That's not to say there isn't a fair amount of rumpy-pumpy in this film, what with Royer-Collard essentially raping his new wife on their wedding night, and their exploits are then discussed in a montage of depravity, including a naked threesome that looked somewhat uncomfortable for all involved. De Sade's cell is also adorned with all manner of phallic and coitally-referencing knick-knacks, one of his fellow inmates (played by Lock Stock's Stephen Marcus) regularly pleasures himself whilst spying on Winslet's Maddy, and the script is positively engorged with double entendres: "The price, my coquette, is every bit as firm as I am." The description Phoenix's Abbe gives to de Sade's Justine is apt for this film too, "An encyclopedia of perversions."
The film is full of wonderfully passionate performances, particularly from Rush, who as usual sinks completely into the role. If I have one slight niggle about the acting though, it would have to be the accents. Whilst this certainly isn't the first film to ignore the native speech patterns of the real-life people on whom the film is based, the lack of even the slightest French twinge was distracting, especially when one character, a nun at the convert from which Caine's Royer-Collard acquires his wife, employs a very deep French accent. This really emphasises how un-French everyone else sounds, especially when you consider her scenes are predominantly with Michael Caine, whose accent repertoire ranges from Kensington to Elephant and Castle.
As I've come to expect with Kate Winslet's films, this story is thoroughly depressing. The Marquis' situation is made ever more dire once it is discovered he is still publishing his writings despite being incarcerated, and he finds himself deprived of any form of writing implements, something he compares to being raped. Behaving like an addict on a mandated cold turkey treatment, the Marquis is forced to form a make-shift quill from a chicken bone, and writes in red wine upon his bed sheets, but the lengths he goes to after even this pathway is nixed makes the film at times uncomfortable to watch, and at others simply unpleasant. The main characters were also mostly unlikable. Whilst Rush's depiction of the Marquis is vibrant and charming, he is still vulgar, the Abbe is repressed and dull, Royer-Collard is repugnant and vile, and Winslet's Maddy is bland, a blank slate awaiting imprinting from any one of the three men for whom she has the eye.
The creation of the setting of late 18th century Paris should be applauded and there are some sequences that were very engaging, for example the Marquis resorting to a chain of Chinese whispers-style dictating of his latest opus, sieved through the minds and vocabularies of his neighbouring inmates. That being said, there were several times throughout the film at which I'd have liked to turn it off and leave it alone, but I stuck it through and made it to the end, regardless of how much I didn't enjoy the film. The story was very well told, but unfortunately it's a story I just didn't want to hear, about characters I just didn't care about.
Choose life 6/10