“This is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. I found it to be discomforting and just weird… This movie gives me the chills. However, I would watch it again just because it is so fascinatingly WEIRD.”–IMDB reviewer ethylester (June 2002)
DIRECTED BY: Henri Xhonneux
FEATURING: Voices of François Marthouret and Valérie Kling
PLOT: The dog-faced Marquis de Sade is imprisoned in the Bastille for blasphemy, where he entertains himself by writing pornographic novels and holding long conversations with his talking penis. Among the other prisoners is Justine, a pregnant cow who claims she was raped and is carrying the King’s child. The prison’s Confessor plots to hide the bastard heir by claiming De Sade is the father; meanwhile, outside the Bastille walls revolutionaries would like to free the political prisoners for their own purposes.
- The historical Marquis de Sade was imprisoned at the Bastille, where he wrote the novel “The 120 Days of Sodom,” from 1784-1789. The Bastille was just one stop in a series of trips to prisons and insane asylums that dogged the aristocrat his entire life.
- The two main female characters in Marquis, Justine and Juliette, are named after the title characters of two of de Sade’s most famous novels. Perverted scenes from the Marquis’ actual stories are recreated with the movie, using Claymation.
- Little is known about director/co-writer Henri Xhonneux, who besides this film has only a few even more obscure credits to his name.
- Artist/writer Roland Topor, of Fantastic Planet fame, was the better known co-scripter of Marquis. Topor also served as art director for the movie.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Surely it must be one of the many tender moments when the Marquis holds a heart-to-heart talk with his own member (named Colin), although there are so many of these dialogues that we will need to narrow down our search further. We’ll select the moment when Colin, lacerated from having pleasured himself inside a crack in the stone prison wall, stares weakly at the Marquis while wearing a little bloody bandage wrapped around his head like a nightcap, begging the writer to tell him a story so he can recover enough strength to fornicate with a cow.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Every character in the movie is based on a different animal and wears a animatronic masks that looks like it came out of a pile of designs Jim Henson rejected for Dark Crystal as “too creepy.” In between Machiavellian political machinations, these beasts have kinky sex with each other. The Marquis de Sade, a handsome canine, holds long conversations with his cute but prodigious member Colin, who has not only a mind but a face and voice of his own. As pornographic costume biopics recast as depraved satirical fables go, Marquis registers fairly high on the weirdometer.
Short clip from Marquis
COMMENTS: Although you could consider it a porno puppet shock show or a misanthropic fable concerning man’s animal nature, perhaps the best way to look at Marquis is as a buddy picture about the misadventures of a canine aristocrat and his pet penis. The dialogues between the libertine pornographer and his chatty phallus aren’t just Marquis‘ most outrageous gimmick; they also form the core of the film’s most detailed relationship. Their tempestuous love/hate bromance embodies the eternal struggle between body and intellect: “Does my mind rule you,” asks Marquis, “or do you rule it?” Marquis’ member is named Colin, and with his bald head, big blinking eyes and foreskin he resembles a baby on a stick wearing a turtleneck. The two are inseparable, although their relationship is doomed; Colin knows his lifespan is shorter than Marquis’, and he constantly complains that the nobleman (who he refers to as a “vain Utopian”) prefers words to action. Indeed, it seems that Marquis would rather write than get laid. The two also become romantic rivals for the movie’s two female characters, the bovine Justine and the equine Juliette, creating a pair of complicated love triangles. Although political intrigues rage around them, with plots involving bastard heirs and imprisoned revolutionaries, Marquis and Colin prefer to stand apart as much as possible, the one buried in his art and the other in lust. The symbiotic tension between these two close chums, mind and libido, is the center of the piece.
Arguably, Colin is the movie’s most human-looking character, since all of the other roles go to other species. Their animal masks and animatronic eyes allow only a hint of human emotion to seep through, and this odd touch gives the artificial cast a sad and wistful appearance, molded rubber objects striving and failing to feel real human love and passion. Marquis’ floppy puppy ears give him the appearance of a balding blueblood with a fringe of hair still clinging around his ears (it’s a bit of a Ben Franklin look). As the star, he’s the cutest and most appealing of the cast, with the aforementioned exception of Colin. The characters’ unique morphologies provide individualized visual puns and jokes, such as the mirthful opportunities occasioned by scrotal wattle hanging from the head of the cocky rooster warden and the unexpected discovery of udders hiding under the skirts of cow Justine. Many of the players take shapes that reflect their characters. The head jailer, who’s in love with Marquis and willing to try any trick, no matter how low, to get himself buggered, has a rat face. The clownish prisoner Pigonou, a dimwitted gluttonous pork merchant, is a hog. Other characters are harder to pin down (why is the head priest a camel?), but the key point is that they are all weird beasts playing dress-up in 19th century garb. The attempted civilizing effects of their wardrobes, surroundings and polite manners do nothing to disguise their animal natures.
Unlike the Marquis, who channels his libido into words rather than deeds, and kindred literary spirit Justine, who is a victim of other men’s lusts, the rest of the characters are a depraved bunch. Every sort of sexual deviance gets its turn here. With the prison setting, incidental bondage is everywhere (at one point Colin gets a separate set of shackles), and of course it goes without saying that the barnyard stench of bestiality hangs over the whole proceedings. There’s also a dominatrix horse for the more hardcore B&D crowd, as well as the scene Justine gets tied up and menaced with a hot poker before being forcibly milked. The horny rat guard supplies a homosexual angle, and indirectly inspires one of the film’s best lines (“I grant you sodomy is against nature, but it’s for a good cause”). One scene is set at a surreal sex party where a buttock-faced string quartet supplies entertainment for orgiers who include a woman with giant lips on her rear and a pair of eyeball-headed twins. There’s even a hint of necrophilia, and if anyone out there has a circumcision fetish, there’s a something here for them, too. In the most disturbing sex scene, Marquis describes the tale of torture of a pregnant woman by a group of monks, which is depicted in claymation.
Thanks to the inhuman bodies and abstract sex organs, the compositions are far too bizarre to be erotic (if you find something in Marquis that turns you on, you probably should seek out a therapist to explore those issues). Marquis is obscene, to be sure, but it’s not arousing. If anything, the movie takes a sadly amused look at sexual perversion, seeing it as an absurd affectation of the elites. As mere kinks, these sexual aberrations are harmless, until they are turned into actions by those in power. The head guard is a conniving opportunist, the warden is an arrogant bully who secretly craves pain and humiliation, and the priest is a ruthless conspirator who is only turned on by political intrigue and who callously kills innocents to further his own aims. By contrast, Marquis’ only offenses in the movie are thought crimes; he is the artist whose depraved imagination is caged and punished by a sanctimonious society that is fine with sin so long as it’s tastefully hidden from public view. Marquis is a generic satire of moral and sexual hypocrisy. As is appropriate given its apolitical protagonist, the movie is more interested in reveling in its own imaginative depravity than constructing a political allegory, either about revolutionary times or our own.
Inspired by his ceaseless imagination and principled rebellion against society’s restraints, Surrealists and other literati have continually sought to rehabilitate the Marquis de Sade and claim him as one of their own (the poet Guillaume Apollinaire called him “the freest spirit who has ever lived”). For most who read the Marquis’ works, which revel in the euphoria of cruelty and fascistic fantasies of domination, this embrace by liberal intellectuals seems bizarre. Marquis falls into the tradition of whitewashing de Sade’s crimes, rewriting history to make him a sympathetic character—as harmless as a cute little puppy. The movie’s unreal masks and surreal sex deliberately distance us from their horrific content of Sade’s fantasies. The writer is depicted as a principled man of the mind with exquisite control of his own libido, as opposed to the corrupt animals around him. In the movie’s context this is acceptable; this is a symbolic Sade, not a historical one. But in reality, de Sade strove to live out the fantasies he wrote about in his books. Knowing that the star character he was imprisoned not just for thought crimes like blasphemy and pornography, or victimless crimes like sodomy, but also for sexual abuse and poisoning prostitutes (!) reduces the pleasure of the movie a bit. It’s almost as if a script made Hitler into the hero of their movie; although they might rewrite his character to make him into a misunderstood art student, we would always see a ghost image of the historical Führer overlaid on the screen. Marquis‘ thesis that the imaginary atrocities of the free mind are nothing beside the real crimes of unreflecting power elites is accurate, but the historical de Sade is a poor spokesman for that position. Although I am not much of a fan of Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s Salo: the 12o Days of Sodom, the movie which literally depicts Sade’s sexual fantasies in sickening, soul-crushing detail, I do have to admire that director for depicting Sadism unflinchingly in all its anti-human brutality. Marquis takes a much different approach to Sadistic horror, filtering it through a bestial dream so we can not only stomach it but even laugh at it, and perhaps even learn from it. That process leaves me uncomfortable; but then again, so do many great movies. In the end, the character we most admire is Colin, who rises from a phallic symbol into an angelic one. He’s honest in his pure biological desires that are untouched and uncorrupted by the sickness of society; perhaps Marquis should have given in and let him lead after all.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a fascinatingly bizarre evocation of the sexual and intellectual passions of a certain M. de Sade… Imagine a blender churning R-rated Muppets, the fables of la Fontaine, both ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Animal House,’ ‘Marat/Sade’ and ‘Me & Him’ — and you’ll barely begin to imagine the perversely defined universe created…”–Richard Harrington, The Washington Post (1992 US Debut)
IMDB LINK: Marquis (1989)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Marquis trailer – A short German trailer for the film, somewhat NSFW (Not Safe for Work) due to sex and animated penises
DVD INFO: For as yet unknown reasons (possibly lack of interest), Marquis has never been released on DVD in Region 1. First Run Features produced a full-screen VHS edition (buy), but the title is no longer listed in their catalog. Used collectors copies are somewhat rare but available for a premium price. A French region 2 DVD was released but has seemingly disappeared from the market. Even if it were nothing else, Marquis is a professionally produced film with significant curiosity value, and it’s about everyone’s favorite topic, sex. The near complete unavailability of a video version is almost as bizarre as Marquis‘ story itself. Some distributor needs to get cracking on this; if you’re looking for a marketing angle, Marquis could see a second life among the furry community.
(This movie was nominated for review by “CXAReign-a,” who accurately described it as “incredibly bizarre.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)