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The film is essentially a filmed record of the live theatre production by
the Royal Shakespeare Co. that toured to New York in the late 1960's and
filmed for Art House distribution by Universal.
This is one of my all-time favorite films because of the sheer density of meaning in it. The story is set in an asylum in 1808 in the Napoleonic era, and the play within it is set in 1793 during the most violent part of the French Revolutionary era. Most of the dialogue has relevance to political criticism in both eras. If that were not enough, it also has levels that are clearly evoking the era that the playwright Weiss was writing in (the 1960's) and also Germany's recent (Holocaust/WWII) past. Some passages in the play, most notably those relating to war, manage to have a level of meaning for ALL FOUR eras at once! Because I show this film to classes, I've seen it dozens of times and I'm continually intrigued by it because each viewing reveals new meanings as it seems to weirdly comment on the current day's events that occurred long after it was written and filmed. The first viewing is often disorienting because it piles so much historic-socio-sexual-political content up with so much odd directing and extreme acting style that it is hard to grasp at first, but repeated viewings suck you in like an intellectual's Rocky Horror Picture Show, and some theatre junkies learn to sing along.
The Film of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Marat/Sade (1967) is considered a classic avant garde 1960's drama in the style known as "Theatre of Cruelty". It is often shown to university level theatre classes because it has wonderful examples of both Artaud and Brecht theatre styles in it. I show it to my classes and it never fails to blow their undergraduate minds. It stars Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday (now Dame Glenda Jackson, MP), Ian Richardson (of "House of Cards" fame) as Marat, and Patrick Magee (Clockwork Orange) as de Sade.
As the title implies, the film is entirely a play-within-a-play where most cast members depict both a character from the French Revolution as well as an insane asylum inmate playing that character. While the film (like the later comedy-drama about deSade, "Quills") addresses censorship, it is primarily concerned with a debate between Marat as a sort of representative of revolutionary radical communism, and de Sade as a nihilistic existentialist frustrated with his own, and society's, violently cruel urges, as well as the futility of revolutionary action to improve mankind.
Despite this very heavy and multi-layered topic, the film also manages to be both sexy and funny in regular intervals. Great moments include a comic "orgy" scene where the inmates sing "What's the point of a revolution without general copulation?" in a round like "row-row-row your boat" and mime a vigorously improbable group sex event fully clothed, Magee's various speeches on the nature of man: "What we do, is but a shadow of what we want to do...", Richardson's unblinking intensity as he waits for the knife to "kill" him, and Jackson, doing a little dance trying to capture the knife from de Sade while he teases her with it in an effort to get her in his arms. Add to this the delightful theatricality and musical numbers (yes there are many musical numbers!) and it is little wonder that the play on which the film is based has regularly been performed all around the world ever since it was written.
When Marat/Sade was first shown--those of us used to the traditional
film entertainments were just stunned. What a tour de force of acting,
makeup, style, filming and music. We didn't know what to make of it. On
one hand it was the scariest, most disturbing film we had seen, on the other
hand it was a grand entertainment with absolutely intriguing characters. Was it historically accurate? Is it a dream? Was that really supposed to be the
Marquis de Sade up on the screen? The film has amazing bookends: The
opening film credits appearing in complete silence one word at a time and then disappearing one word at a time, has to be sort of a classic of film titles-- anticipating the minimalist art movements in the visual arts. Before the film even begins, we are off kilter, completely disoriented. The horrifying ending at the time was a shocker. One is really unprepared for this spectacular brutality--and the fact that it just ends in the midst of the chaos with zero resolution again is totally disorienting. This remains a great film--with some of the most amazing acting ever caught on screen. For most of us here in the U.S., it was the first time we saw Glenda Jackson. Her voice, her presence, her amazing acting
technique--she became instantaneously recognized as one of the great screen
actresses. And sure enough shortly thereafter, she won her two academy
awards. If you enjoy great theatre, and great film treatments of theatrical
material--this film is simply not to be missed.
You do not need to know the details of French history to enjoy (?) this most astonishing and confrontational movie. Remember that this is a cinematic version of a play, and that Director Peter Brooks never loses sight of the physical presence and power that his original stage version was renowned for. Unlike many cinematic treatments of stage drama, this film is essentially theatre - the camera in fact intensifies the claustrophobic setting and puts the viewer in the front row. The performances are uniformly excellent : the intensity and conviction of the cast in their roles is exceptional. This is an emotionally draining, bravura movie that once seen, can not be forgotten.
I was hooked on this movie the minute I laid eyes upon it... bought the video and meticulously transcribed every word onto my copy of a transcript. I found the Shakespearean troupe to be excellent in their portrayals of madmen performing a play. The French Revolution being the main theme, echoed by various inmates' views of it, as well as several forays into philosophical thinking of man's condition. Plenty of symbolism, hard to draw a line where reality ends and madness begins (is it history, the play, the actor, the character, the madman, the script, etc.). Bears repeated watchings well, if one is interested in terrific character portrayal, philosophy, history, mental illness in general, etc. Asks that you pay close attention at all times, however... some of the extended debates between De Sade and Marat are absolutely riveting to watch. The interplay of several levels of perception is fascinating, and the overall effect is definitely one of a real insane asylum, disturbingly so at times. There is much humour here as well, again on multiple levels... this is definitely an intellectual movie, a thinking man's movie... all action takes place in the single bathouse of the asylum. Many aspects both of history and the philosophies of revolutionary leaders and their antagonists are explored. Highly recommended watching.
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 (1967/Peter Brook)
**** out of ****
"He who kills without passion, is a machine."- Marquis de Sade (Patrick Magee)
What does one look for in a film? I suppose it has something to do with personal interest, but the reason why I was fascinated with the film mentioned above, was because of its abnormally large title. As I was strolling through Blockbuster today, I noticed that it carried this film on DVD. And I thought to myself, "Isn't it rare that my local Blockbuster is housing such a rare 60's arthouse film?". So I took advantage of it, and rented the movie. And this is what I found within it...
Never before has a title been so self explanatory. It serves as the film's plot description. It is basically a filmed play about the French Revolution and the last days of Jean-Paul Marat (Ian Richardson). The catch is: It is performed by patients of a mental hospital in France (in 1808). And it is directed and acted in by a famous patient at the hospital: The Marquis de Sade. It is performed to the Administrator and his family, and many local citizens who care to watch. The point of the show is to prove that the hospital's rehabilitation methods are working, but de Sade has a far more ambitious goal than that. And the play is constantly interrupted by the administrator, who feels it should be more "politically correct" for the recent times. But after the second act, the inmates have secretly taken over, and he is forced just to watch in horror, as are we...the audience.
It is very hard to classify this film. At some points, it is a drama. At other points, it is a thriller, mystery, horror, comedy, and even musical (the musical numbers are very strange). But for the most part, it is a two hour history lesson. All the performances are excellent, and haunting (especially Glenda Jackson's performance). The film has a bizarre tone about it, and is easily the most eerie film I have ever scene. When I called it a history lesson, you might have lost interest right then. But, all the actors (especially the narrator who speaks only in rhymes), looks directly into the camera as they speak. It is as if they are talking to you, and as if you are the only one watching. This gives you the feeling that you must sit up and listen, or they will be angry with you.
"Marat/Sade" is the most unique, and most ghostly film I have ever scene. I only recommend it to fans of theater, and of course film buffs. Though the film requires your greatest attention, it is oddly rewarding.
I just watched the MGM DVD, which is a fine letterboxed transfer. (I
also saw the movie a few years after it was released.)
Marat/Sade is an amazingly original and stunningly powerful philosophical and psychological descent into one of the most complex periods of recorded history, the French Revolution, the Terror that ensued, and the rise of Napoleon and his empire. The multi-layered ideas come thick and fast; I had to watch the movie over two nights because there's so much to think about, and some of the words and images are so overwhelming.
Of the Royal Shakespeare Company actors in the film (little known at the time), Glenda Jackson had the most notable subsequent career, but Ian Richardson (Marat) has also done remarkable things (and he's so young here, you may not recognize him).
This is not a movie for casual entertainment, but if you care about history and the deepest questions of good and evil and free will, you'll find much of value here.
One must read the play and see the background of Peter Weiss in order to get the full feel of this movie. It is absolutely the best presentation of the politics of man and our inability to ever resolve the major issues of our existence. Peter Weiss has fully captured the unending struggle between the politics necessary to obtain freedom versus that which enslaves. The best parts are the discussions between Sade and Marat as to the results of freedom versus dictatorship and capitalism versus socialism. The entire story provides a voyage through the human comedy and shows the inability of humanity to ever figure out the real truth of our existence and relationship to each other and our socitey. The result is a better understanding of the sinusoidal flow of the give an take of our history.
Marat/Sade is quite simply one of the best movies I have ever seen. The movie asks the eternal questions regarding the nature of being and the definitions that are agreed to and imposed by society, in all of its forms. Everything is described in this movie, including censorship and propaganda which are all delivered under the guise of benevolent tyranny. The fact that a good portion of events described in the movie aren't historically accurate, doesn't mar the precise and razor sharp script (an English translation of a German Play). It is hard to distill or summarize this movie with any acuity, except to say that the ideas that are described are exactly what is required and nothing more. I'll end with a quote from the beginning of the movie, "...see Marat debating with De Sade, each one wrestling with each other's views. Who's the winner? You must choose...".
I know little or nothing about the French Revolution, but I have seen this movie several times. (Perhaps all I know about the French Rev. is from this movie!) However, I do know superb drama when I see it. I know masterful performances. I know artful, excellent directing and scripts that make actors drool with anticipation. This movie is one of the ten best ever.
MARAT/SADE is the film version of a play that arose from an actor's
workshop exploring various theatrical theories expressed by French
actor-director-writer Antoine Artard, who extolled a style of
performance he described as "theatre of cruelty"--which, broadly
speaking, consists of an assault upon the audience's senses by every
means possible. Ultimately, and although it makes effective use of its
setting and the cinematography mirrors the chaos expected of such a
situation, the film version of MARAT/SADE is less a motion picture than
a record of a justly famous stage play that offers a complex statement
re man's savagery.
The story of MARAT/SADE concerns the performance of a play by inmates of an early 1800s insane asylum, with script and direction by the infamous Marquis de Sade. (While this may sound a bit far-fetched, it is based on fact: de Sade was known to have written plays for performance by inmates during his own incarceration in an asylum.) The story of the play concerns the assassination of the revolutionary Marat by Charotte Corday, but the play itself becomes a debate between various characters, all of which may be read as in some way intrinsically destructive and evil. Since all the characters are played by mentally-ill inmates of the asylum (the actor playing Marat, for example, is described as a paranoid, and the actress playing Corday suffers from sleeping sickness and melancholia), the debate is further fueled by their insanity, unpredictability as performers, and the staff's reactions to both their behavior and the often subversive nature of the script they play out.
Patrick Magee as de Sade, Glenda Jackson as the inmate playing Corday (it was her breakout performance), and Ian Richardson as the inmate playing Marat offering impressive performances; indeed, the ensemble cast as a whole is incredibly impressive, and they keep the extremely wordy script moving along with considerable interest. Even so, it will be obvious that the material works better as a live performance than as a film, and I do not recommend it to a casual viewer; its appeal will be largely limited to the literary and theatrical intelligentsia. The DVD includes the original theatrical trailer, but beyond this there are no extras of any kind.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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