CAPSULE: 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)

Recommended

AKA Marat/Sade

DIRECTED BY: Peter Brook

FEATURING: , , Glenda Jackson, Michael Williams

PLOT: The director of the Charenton asylum permits the prisoners to put on a play about the murder of one of the architects of the French Revolution; the machinations of the play’s notorious author, combined with the unique insanities of the cast, consistently threaten to derail the production.

Still from Marat/Sade (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Marat/Sade is easy to admire but difficult to love, purposely distancing itself from its audience with a presentational style, a remote historical setting, and characters who are all but impossible to empathize with. By putting the great debates over the efficacy and morality of revolutionary fervor into the mouths of the sick and deranged, the movie declares its allegiance to a stranger flag. But while it is confrontational and occasionally repellent, Marat/Sade is still a thoughtful, methodical, and ultimately a sober work.

COMMENTS: Every once in a while, a play shows up on Broadway that is so alive with the enthusiasm and commitment of its cast, so daring in its subject matter, so determined to break away from the complacency and redundancy of its contemporaries, that it becomes a smash on the scale of the more attention-getting musicals. Recent years have seen plays such as “Angels in America,” “August: Osage County,” and “Take Me Out” demand the spotlight; in 1966, it was “Marat/Sade” that was all the buzz in the theater world. After the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Peter Weiss’ original German-language play essentially launched the British fringe, it traveled across the Atlantic to dazzle America, becoming not only a hit but also shorthand for subversive, challenging theater.

So a movie version has a lot to live up to, and it’s a tribute to director Peter Brook’s vision that he manages to find the cinematic elements in the staging of a play. For Marat/Sade is working at multiple levels: a film of a play screening before an audience in which a play is being performed for an audience. It’s easy to lose track of which one you should be following. Consider the choices de Sade makes in casting his production. His Marat is portrayed by a paranoiac, Corday is a narcoleptic, Duperret a sex criminal. How much importance we should ascribe to these choices? Is this de Sade jesting with the historical figures? Is it Weiss assigning another layer of meaning to characters already laden with subtext? Is the whole thing a joke, designed to set up situations like Corday’s frequent mid-play naps? If theater is an author’s medium and film is a director’s medium, but one of the protagonists is a writer and director of the very work we’re watching, just who the hell is responsible?

Brook takes great pains to remind us that we are watching a play. The character of the Herald is constantly there to remind the actors of their lines. A chorus frequently chimes in with musical numbers that sound like lesser Newley/Bricusse tunes. And we get shots of the audience watching from the other side of the prison bars. But we get just as many hints that this is an impossible play. The script seems all too prepared to address the objections of the asylum director in dialogue. Our Marat seems not an actor at all, but the very man back from the dead, and de Sade engages him in debate as if he were the genuine article. And how the heck did this collection of crazies learn all these elaborate speeches, anyway? Whenever you think you’ve got your footing, Marat/Sade is there to give you a good shove.

Possibly the finest compliment you can give Marat/Sade is that you finish it thrilled and exhausted, but also unsure if you understood any of it. In trying to figure it out, I find it helpful to go back to that monstrously long (possibly even Guinness record-worthy) title, which is usually trimmed down to highlight the ostensible antagonists of the piece. In doing so, possibly the most important word to understanding the work as a whole is lost: “asylum.” In assessing the French Revolution, a particularly bloody uprising that overthrew a monarchy and then blundered through violence until another dictator arrived to grab control, it seems as though no one involved had the wisdom or foresight to anticipate the bloodshed that would result. By putting the subject in the hands of the insane, it specifically labels the enlightened masters of the uprising as insane themselves, and by placing the play under the auspices of a politician who represents the new dictatorship, it goes for broke and says everyone is crazy. Revolution is bloody, violent, destructive. To think otherwise, or to think that it won’t reach you, is dangerous folly, and Marat/Sade wants you to know that even if—especially if—you think you’re in control, then you’re next.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The typical dish or cable viewer, then, might utter ‘What the hell is this?’ and gaze upon the weirdness only momentarily, without even having put down the remote… Strange scenes can be felt but not always understood, and perhaps its impossible to do so.” – Brian Koller, Films Graded (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who called it “pretty strange, to say the least.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: 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)”

  1. This is actually one of my favorite films and my absolute favorite play. It makes penetrating commentary out of actual history, high art out of purposeful pretension and packs a visceral wollop to boot. The lead cast is astonishingly good, and every inmate/chorus member is given a chance to develop a full character through mannerisms, costumes and facial expressions despite the fleeting screen time afforded each. As a French Revolution buff with a background in theater, who works in the mental health field (and understands the long, painful history of asylum “care”) and who has an appreciation for multilayered outsider art this film is like my birthday, Christmas, New Years Eve, and Ice Cream for Breakfast Day combined!

    1. Well Thank You, Shane & Brad.

      Because of your review and remarks I felt compelled to hunt down a DVD of this obscure film. Is there a one-word name for the “Subversive Period Piece from the late ’60s” genre?

      Regardless, I strongly suspect my outlay will be worth it.

    2. I think you’ll find it to be worth every penny. It’s a challenging piece that gives up its treasures through multiple viewings. I saw it originally on the Bravo network back in the late 80’s when they used to show art films in the middle of the night. I also saw Ken Russell’s “The Music Lovers” and “Valentino” and Bernardo Bertolucci’s “1900” on there in that time slot, albiet in edited form. Basic cable wasn’t the bastion of sex and profanity back then that it is now!

  2. The movie is on its way, and I imagine that it Will be worth every penny. (Particularly seeing as it just registered that Ian Richardson stars as Marat.)

    To you and Shane I recommend, if you haven’t seen it, Greenaway’s “Baby of Mâcon”. It definitely finishes with that “thrilled and exhausted” thing. (Hmm, that sounds a bit.. off.)

  3. I also want to chime in for Marat/Sade as well as Greenaway’s The Baby of Macon. They’re both exceptional achievements—yes, difficult to sort through because of their conceptual complexities, but expertly executed. Thanks for the review Mr. Wilson and 366!

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