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** ½
(2000) rated: R

Director: Philip Kaufman

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Caine

Synopsis: The notorious Marquis de Sade (Rush), encouraged by a sympathetic priest (Phoenix) to purge his evil thoughts, writes a series of books and stories about sexual situations while imprisoned in a mental asylum. A laundress (Winslet) smuggles the stories out to a publisher, who distributes it to the hungry populace. A particularly crude book, "Justine", makes its way to Napoleon, who furiously declares that de Sade must be "cured" and sends Dr. Royer-Collard (Caine) to do so. Hijinks ensue.

Review: There is something about the Marquis de Sade that is actually charming (at least, in this movie). His irrepressible spirit, I think, is what makes him appealing, despite the excesses (to put it politely) of his prose. When he is forbidden to write and his supplies are removed, he perseveres with inventive use of his surroundings by using his clothes, body, and even the wall of his cell as surfaces, and his own blood and excrement as ink. The strength of the story is that we do not so much relate to de Sade's odd tastes as we do to his tenacity.

Kaufman has crafted a thoughtful piece, a rarity in the year 2000, but I still found the film somewhat lacking in sophistication. Kaufman displays a somewhat restrained style during the film, an interesting approach considering the controversial topics of the film. He might have succeeded had he not departed from his restraint with a few over-the-top scenes which ultimately detract from the film.

Geoffrey Rush portrays de Sade's witty, playful and creative side extremely well, but lacks the raw sexual attractiveness I thought would be necessary for the infamous de Sade. Still, Rush turns in a good performance as well as Phoenix, whose plays the conflicted man of God all too well. Torn between loyalties to the state and God, as well as his attraction to Madeline (Winslet, also turning in a good performance) and his friendship with and fear of de Sade. Caine gives a good turn as the hypocrite drawn to what he decries.

This is a good film with a few shortcomings that nonetheless accomplishes what I think it set out to do.

• Does art reflect society or is it the other way around?
• When does erotic cross the line into pornography?

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