Director Philip Kaufman has a knack for bringing to the screen challenging adaptations of literary works. Previously, he has made films of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and the story of Henry Miller and Anais Nin in Henry and June. This fictional account of the last days of the Marquis de Sade, the infamous, eighteenth-century writer, is based on a stage play by Doug Wright. Here is the archetypal clash between the establishment forces of morality and the creative spirit of a subversive artist who enjoys spitting in the face of repressive authorities.
The Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is being held prisoner at the Charenton Asylum for the Insane. He has an unusual friendship with Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the liberal-minded priest who heads the place and allows the infamous author to stage theatricals acted by the inmates. The Marquis cleverly uses Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a lovely chambermaid, to smuggle his erotic writings out to those who eagerly purchase them all over France. When Napoleon learns of this outrageous development, he dispatches Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to the asylum in order to "cure" this troublemaker and keep his sadomasochistic writings away from the public.
Academy Award actor Geoffrey Rush catches the complexity of the Marquis de Sade, a narcissist who revels in his fantasies and stubbornly resists those who do not appreciate his genius. Immediately sensing the threat posed by Dr. Royer-Collard, he stages a play satirizing the aging man's sexual relationship with his teenage bride (Amelia Warner), who was recently in a nunnery. As these two square off against each other, Madeleine is caught in the crossfire. She relishes the writings of the Marquis and savors her friendship with the idealistic Abbe. Joaquin Phoenix convincingly conveys the soul-wrenching turmoil of the priest who suddenly finds himself lusting for Madeleine and unable to handle the increasingly mad behavior of the Marquis.
The witty screenplay by Doug Wright presents some surprising twists and turns as he examines the themes of evil and innocence, virtue and hypocrisy, freedom and self-destructiveness. It's always a great folly, as demonstrated by the recent Salman Rushdie episode, to try to silence an artist. Although many creative souls emphasize the importance of ordering their universe in order to create beauty, others thrive on chaos. This story explores that dimension of creativity. Or as Ben Shahn, the artist, put it: "I love chaos: it is the mysterious, the unknown road. It is the ever-unexpected, the way out: it is freedom, it is humanity's only hope. It is the poetic element in a dull and ordered world."