Bringing a play to the screen has been approached in many ways, often disastrously, but it is hard to recall a film that solves it so triumphantly as Peter Brook’s “Marat/ Sade.” “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” is the film version of a play presented as being written by de Sade (for whom sadism is named), and acted out exactly as if it were performed by the inmates of the insane asylum where de Sade spent his last years writing plays for them to perform. If you think that this sounds a little too bizarre to be an enjoyable movie, you’re half right. To be exact, it’s much too bizarre.
It is set on July 13, 1808 at the Charenton Insane Asylum just outside Paris. The inmates of the asylum are mounting their latest theatrical production, written and produced by probably the most famous inmate of the facility, the Marquis de Sade. The asylum’s director, M. Coulmier, a supporter of the current French regime led by Napoleon, encourages this artistic expression as therapy for the inmates, while providing the audience – the aristocracy – a sense that they are being progressive in inmate treatments. Coulmier as the master of ceremonies, his wife and daughter in special places of honor, and the cast, all of whom are performing the play in the asylum’s bathhouse, are separated from the audience by prison bars. The play is a retelling of a period in the French Revolution culminating with the assassination exactly fifteen years earlier of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat by peasant girl, Charlotte Corday. The play is to answer whether Marat was a friend or foe to the people of France.
Peter Brook is one of the world’s most famous stage directors. He and experimental theater go hand in hand. “Marat/Sade” is adapted from Brook’s own Royal Shakespeare Company production of Peter Weiss’ play. He used the Shakespeare Company for the movie, creating a daring and almost entirely successful film that makes the audience think and take sides.
In an attempt at therapy, the Marquis de Sade has written and directed a play that proceeds as well as one would imagine, considering the main actress (Glenda Jackson) is a narcoleptic manic-depressive, and one of the main actors is a serial rapist. Slowly but surely, the production begins to unravel, and the inmates become harder to control. And through the production, various inmates spout out different philosophies, while the head of the asylum speaks for the Napoleonic government of the time.
This capsule summary doesn’t do justice to this film; Peter Brook’s direction, the makeup, and the acting all defy words. Brook contrasts extreme close-ups with wide long shots to suggest that the viewer is seeing a play. However, the contrast actually works in creating a palpable tension that doesn’t let up until the final explosive moments. The makeup, suggesting not only the sickness of the inmates, but also some of the crueler tortures that passed for therapy at the time heightens the sense of unease. Most of the actors have very few lines, so they allow the makeup and their general stance to suggest their own particular mental illness. The result is that the individual characters come together to become a dangerous mass, with each individual giving a particular shading to the larger whole.
Of course, the leads have more than their fair share of lines. Patrick Magee is the true standout as De Sade and is eminently more expressive and restrained here, in a role that is generally known for its wild theatrics. Magee has crafted the Marquis into a much more human and believable character. And the look of regret ever present on Magee’s face multiplies the resonance of the. Ian Richardson ably holds up his end of the film as Jean-Paul Marat, the French revolutionary leader. Richardson’s role is less articulate than Magee’s, but what he lacks in dialogue he more than makes up for in sheer misery. Marat was a leader of strong ideals who was constantly betrayed by the ravenous actions of the French mob, who had no real plan, as well as later bloodthirsty revolutionary leaders like Robespierre. He also had a skin disease that was rather unsightly. Richardson wears his emotions on his sleeve (as well as some gruesome makeup on his body), and plays most of the film with a haunting gaze that is truly chilling.
The only real problem is that it tends to become overly talkative. Now, realizing that even within the film we’re supposed to be watching a play, most of the action will be symbolized, and Brook employs various devices to suggest different actions, and most to good effect. But this is a movie about a play about the French Revolution, so the endless talking makes it drag at times. Luckily, there are some good songs that are lively and pick things up. On the whole I’d have shaved off five to ten minutes, and then there would be no need to complain. As it is, Marat/Sade is more than worth watching, regardless of the few extra dragging minutes.
The play is vexing and difficult, lacking entirely in the conventional kind of plot and suspense. Because of its peculiar structure, it made us aware at all times of the gap between the stage and reality.
At one level, the inmates of the asylum at Charenton were performing a play about the assassination of the French revolutionary figure, Marat. At the next level, we knew that the play was being directed by one of the inmates, the Marquis de Sade, for an audience of powdered and wigged members of Napoleon’s court.
At the third level was the tension during the production. Would the inmates, constantly distracted from the play by their various forms of insanity, be able to finish? Would they riot first? Would the director permit the Marquis’ subversive play to continue even if they did not?
There was the dramatic situation itself to deal with. Here was a play ostensibly being performed in 1808 by madmen, before an audience of reactionaries, 15 years after the revolution had died. Why should this situation be thought relevant to us in the middle of the 20th Century?!
Brooks made a motion picture about a production of the play. He retained the original script, unaltered so far as I could tell. He used most of the members of the original company in their original roles. He more or less reproduced the large communal cell of the stage production. Beyond the bars he placed an audience, which we see only in silhouette. He made one wall of the cell uniformly bright, supplying all the light for the filming.
And then, to what was still essentially a stage play, he added the techniques of cinema. The one power that a film director has, and a stage director does not, is the power to force us to see what he wants us to see. In the theater, we can look anywhere on the stage. But in the movies the camera becomes our eye and the director looks for us.
Brook has taken an important play, made it more immediate and powerful than it was on the stage, and at the same time created a distinguished and brilliant film. (The film was made in 1967).