Classics Month – Marquis de Sade: The immor(t)al sadist

Few authors have acquired as much fame as the Marquis de Sade (1740-1815). Depending who you ask, he was either a great philosopher or producer of the most despicable porn. As the word “sadism” was based on him, what kind of blog would this be if we didn’t dedicate a post to him? And the classics month is the perfect time to do just that. (see here for the previous post on the classic Venus in Furs, written by de Sade’s masochistic counterpart.) Now, he wrote a lot and his novels have seen many adaptations in films. So here are my recommendations for anyone who wants to check out some films and novels by the Marquis de Sade.

Marquis de Sade’s novels

De Sade had a tumultuos life and wrote a number of books that stood the tests of time. In most of his books, the “plot” is basically a parade of repititous tortures and murders. He championed the philosophy that, as the subtitle of Juliette says “Vice [gets] amply rewarded.” Novels like 120 Days of Sodom fall into this category: it barely has a plot and as such has not been adapted that often (with the exception of this film).

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s Philosophy in the Bedroom/Boudoir. Though it does have some light matricide, both male and female homosexuality (then considered a crime) and the corruption of a virginal and innocent young girl; in this book de Sade spends more time discussing the philosophy behind the libertine lifestyle than listing acts of torture. Also, the “sadism” in this book looks more like what people from the BDSM community would consider sadism. (See here for IMDb’s list of films with this title.) Notorious Spanish film director Jesús Franco created a film based on Eugénie, the protagonist of this novel. Here, sadism looks nothing like the style in Philosophy, and more like that in de Sade’s darker novels.


Still from the film Eugenia
Eugenia, 1973

This film tells the story of Eugenia and her stepfather, who is a brilliant but relatively unsuccesful novelist and literary critic. When she discovers that she likes his erotic and sadistic novels, the both of them develop their own erotic relationship. This romance is not all rainbows and sunshine.

The pair’s ambition is to execute “perfect murders”, with no other motive than the pleasure they get from these crimes. Things start to get problematic when Eugenia falls in love with someone else, and everyone dies. (Don’t worry, these are not spoilers, it is kind of suggested in the opening scenes already.) Though the plot and fake blood are entirely unconvincing this is a dark and quite enjoyable movie. Forgive it for being a low-budget shot in the early 70s and you’ll be fine. As a bonus, there are some stunning women and a lot of nudity. Need proof? Here’s a shot of Eugenia tying up her first victim before murdering her:

Still from the film Eugenia
Eugenia, 1973.

Justine, the films and novels

But I did promise you an innocent virgin so let’s move on to Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue. Justine and Juliette lose both their parents and their fortune. Left with nothing to lose, they choose two very different paths. Justine decides to remain virtuous and Christian, whereas Juliette (do read this novel as well) chooses the life of vice.

As Justine’s subtitle suggests, her virtue does not bring her much luck. The naive and trusting Justine keeps meeting people who take advantage of her innocence. A man blackmails her into committing murder and brands her as a murderer when she refuses; they imprison her for a theft she did not commit; three criminals try to rape her; etc. Though I am not a big fan of “etceteras,” the Marquis de Sade’s repetitiveness kind of calls for it. And if you’re not a reader, of course there are films you can watch.

Still from Justine, a film based on the novel by Marquis de Sade.
Marquis de Sade’s Justine, 1969.

Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969)

The 1969 film Marquis de Sade’s Justine was directed by the same man as Eugenia. It is a shame that Franco (not the “Kink” one) omitted some of the more interesting torturers from the novel. However, what he does achieve is the same frustration with this virtuous heroine that you get from the books. No matter how many times she falls into the hands of people who torture her and take advantage of her, she continues to trust the people she meets. She absolutely refuses to save herself except by running away (and into the arms of her next torturer). One of the cruel monks gets it right, when he tells her that her greatest pleasure can be found in endurance.

When she s sent to her execution for the murder accusation, the now rich and succesful Juliette finds and saves her. When they talk about their experiences, Justine proclaims she finally learned her lesson: that in this world only vice is rewarded. Unsurprisingly, this is a message that can be found in many of the novels and films by and on the Marquis de Sade. Similar to the book, Juliette tells her that her life may look succesful but feels empty, and that at least Justine will get rewarded in the afterlife.

This moral of the story is actually the same as in the end of the novel Justine. (Though in Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded, Juliette says that she lied to make her sister feel better._ A huge difference however, is that whereas in the novel Justine kills herself – thus giving up her chance of heaven and a proper burial – in the film she gets to spend the rest of her life with a man who truly loves her. So, I guess, all’s well that ends well?

Still from Justine, a film based on the novel by Marquis de Sade.
Marquis de Sade’s Justine, 1969.

Quills – a film about the Marquis de Sade

My absolute favorite de Sade movie, is definitely Quills (2000). Directed by Philip Kaufman (the writer of Indiana Jones), this film stars Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine and Joaquin Phoenix. Sounds like a proper Hollywood movie, doesn’t it? Though as it is de Sade, the movie is a tad darker than you’d expect from Kate Winslet.

The Marquis de Sade (Rush) is sent to a mental institution by Napoleon (true story) for the content of his novels. However, even in this institution he keeps writing. With the help of washerwoman Kate Winslet he smuggles his manuscripts out of this prison to get them published. The priest in charge of the hospital, played by Joaquin Phoenix, keeps trying to find ways to stop him from writing. His furniture is taken away, as well as his pens and paper. However, the Marquis is quite inventive and finds new ways to keep writing, for example, by using his clothes as parchment:

Still from the movie Quills, where the Marquis de Sade wrote a novel on his clothes.
Quills, 2000.

I don’t want to give away too much, but this movie is a must-see for every fan of Geoffrey Rush, sadism, the Marquis de Sade, (anti)censorship or genuinely great acting. Given the choice between this movie and any other film ever, go for this one. And this one is especially good if you have always wondered why the novels by the Marquis de Sade, as well as the films, keep speaking to the imagination even two hundred years later.

Still from the film Quills, in which the Marquis de Sade hands his novel to the washerwoman.

3 thoughts on “Classics Month – Marquis de Sade: The immor(t)al sadist”

  1. I’ve got to say, I hated Quills. It treats de Sade as a madman who has nothing interesting to say. He just wants to talk about dick and pussy. It excises all the actual kinky sex he writes about, as well as his philosophical point about virtue not being rewarded. It doesn’t really have any coherent message about sex, except that doing it will cause bad things to happen to you.

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