Carnal Knowledge


“The freest spirit who ever existed,” per Guillaume Apollinaire, the Marquis de Sade was visualized in Philip Kaufman’s Quills as a ridiculously incorrigible roué—Geoffrey Rush, no less, strutting and leering under a ratty gray wig. The suave Daniel Auteuil, who plays the title role in Benoît Jacquot’s rival production, Sade, may be volatile, but he’s scarcely so uncool. His preferred come-on is the hypnotic stare—not unlike a predatory owl indulgently eyeing a mouse.

Kaufman’s ink-stained wretch was a tiresome free-speech martyr. Jacquot’s libertine is more philosophical—at once an out-front atheist and an eccentric New Age guru. Like Quills, Sade opens in 1794, Year One of the victorious French Revolution, with its hero lounging around the Bastille. But unlike Quills, which jumps ahead a decade to Napoleon’s day, Sade concerns an earlier period of incarceration, coinciding with the Reign of Terror. Instead of in a mental hospital, the marquis is warehoused in a former convent turned private “clinic” together with a bunch of be-rouged aristos paying protection money to stay in hopes of avoiding the guillotine.

Sade’s fellow inmates include a worldly actress (Jeanne Balibar), the viscount she distracts (Jean-Pierre Cassel), and the viscount’s young daughter, Emilie (gamine du jour Isild Le Besco). Much of the movie is devoted to the sentimental education of this intelligent and delectable virgin—but not in the way you might imagine. A typical teenager, Emilie maintains a sullen, suspicious demeanor that only melts when she comes in contact with the charmingly disreputable marquis—at once the least and most grown-up character in the clinic, a man her mother warned her against.

Emilie is Sade’s pet project but hardly his most loyal disciple. The marquis has an ongoing liaison with the comely peasant woman he calls “Sensible” (Marianne Denicourt), who although now kept by an ardently uptight young Jacobin (glowering Grégoire Colin) still manages to steal away to supply her former lover with his books, quills, and dildos. As Sensible dotes on the marquis, so does Jacquot’s film—providing close-ups for his quips while grounding his ongoing reflections on the material world in satiny textures and warm, saturated colors.

Sade doesn’t stint on its period details. Still, not one to fuss unduly about the political mess engulfing France, Jacquot amuses us with various erotic intrigues among the inmates—even Emilie, who flees ashen-faced from Sade’s cell after reading a bit of his manuscript, is shown to masturbate. Meanwhile, the marquis attempts to stage one of his milder plays (ironically juxtaposed against Robespierre’s grand “Fete of the Supreme Being”). Jacquot generously attributes his own fascination with the inner lives of pretty young girls to his hero. The best scenes concern Sade and Emilie’s ongoing tutorial on the nature of nature, existentially formulated under sentence of death.

Too bland and fustily tasteful to be truly prurient, Sade moves along at a reasonable clip, goosed by claps of gothic lighting, solemn chords, and amplified sound effects. If the flies are buzzing loudly, it may be because this is an overripe piece of fruit. The mise-en-scène is prettified even when it tries to be gritty—as with the mounds of decapitated corpses the Committee of Public Safety piles outside the clinic walls. Jacquot doesn’t engage in any sort of horror and neither does his Sade. This marquis is an avuncular if unusual fellow. Not only does he bring a young couple together and sensitively direct their lovemaking, he manages to get his own whipping thrown in.

“You’re not as clever as the girls in my novels,” the petulant Sade complains to Emilie at one point. What would the man the surrealists dubbed the Divine Marquis have made of Samantha (Stephanie Bennett), the sadsack sexual adventuress of the credibly low-budget, verité-style fiction that not too cleverly calls itself Some Body? No less than Sade, Sam declines to view female sexuality in terms of its reproductive function, but her self-flagellation is more depressing than entertaining.

As Some Body was co-written by Bennett with her director and acting-school comrade, Henry Barrial, and evidently includes some of the actress’s former relationships in the cast, the movie has elements of psychodrama. Kindergarten teacher Sam leaves boring Anthony (Jeramy Guillory), her boyfriend of seven years, for a series of fleeting, increasingly unhappy involvements—most dismally the self-regarding barfly who rifles her wallet while distracting her with the promise of his “spicy sausage.” This isn’t exactly the repast of Looking for Mr. Goodbar, although occasional parallels are made between Sam’s days and nights, as when Barrial juxtaposes children dancing around their classroom with a costume bash that she attends dressed as a devil. (When Sam’s pickup subsequently discovers her vibrator, Barrial cuts to the kids shaping clay.)

Shot over a two-year period and promoted as the first DV film ever shown digitally in the Sundance competition, Some Body makes reasonable use of its limitations—including Bennett, an extroverted performer whose hard features can be softened by a sudden smile. A competent social director, Barrial varies his tempo by guiding party scenes in and out of slow motion and fast-forwarding through Sam’s toilette. There’s some graphic sex talk, but the most embarrassing scene has Anthony revoking Sam’s dog-visiting privileges. “Anthony, I’m begging you,” she howls, “please don’t let somebody else be his mommy.” (This is a movie with as much bawling as balling.)

The self-conscious acting and use of direct address bespeak an aesthetic less orthodox Dogme than MTV’s Real World, with a nod to Jerry Springer. Whenever the characters quarrel, you wait for the studio audience to chime in. There’s a particularly American happy ending as well: Sam strolls along Hollywood Boulevard, wondering where her life is going but never doubting that she’s intrinsically interesting.

Avant-garde master Ernie Gehr’s first foray into DV is innocuously titled Cotton Candy—although given the piece’s implications, he could have easily gotten away with something as weighty as Montage of Attractions, The Myth of Total Cinema, Carnival of Souls, or That’s Entertainment.

Gehr uses a mini-digital recorder to look back on the Machine Age in the form of San Francisco’s soon-to-be-shuttered Musee Mecanique. For slightly more than an hour, Cotton Candy documents this venerable collection of coin-operated mechanical toys—including an entire circus—mainly in close-up, isolating particular details as he alternates between ambient and post-dubbed (or no) sound. By treating the Musee’s cast of synchronized figures as puppets, the artist is making a show—but is it his or theirs? Gehr’s selective take on the arcade renders it all the more spooky. There’s a sense in which Cotton Candy is a gloss on the moment in The Rules of the Game when the music-box-collecting viscount unveils his latest and most elaborate acquisition. (It also brings to mind the climax of A.I.: The DV of the future tenderly regards the more human machine of the past.)

The Musee’s assortment of space-bending, raucously interactive video games is shown only obliquely, and relatively late in the film. Gehr prefers to focus on the outmoded and archaic. Thus, Cotton Candy pays particular attention to the old-fashioned, hand-cranked photographic flip-books known as mutoscopes. In what could be a movie from the 1890s, a secretary fights off a masher; later mutoscopes have a cowboy belly up to the bar, a boat drift toward the rapids, and Harold Lloyd dancing on a skyscraper girder. How many nickels have dropped in the slot? How many times have these images flickered? Crumbling before our eyes, the worn-out motion pictures still work!

In addition to the persistence of Persistence of Vision, Cotton Candy‘s other main concern is the effect of sound, synchronous and otherwise, on the moving image. Gehr extracts a wry pathos from having his puppets “sing” the Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 hit, “If I Had a Talking Picture of You,” and even manages to wring a degree of defamiliarization when the mechanical band appears to strike up a melancholy passage from Erik Satie. A frequently heard player piano appears on-screen for a “sync event” closer—the mindless reiteration of a melody programmed perhaps a hundred years ago, by someone long dead.

Gehr has always been interested in the ephemeral, and Cotton Candy could well be his most preservationist film. Also the most epic—the automata provide the filmmaker with his largest-ever cast. (This is also the first time he’s ever had to pay his actors.) Appropriately, the Museum of Modern Art, which commissioned the work, is projecting it straight from disc—it’s not really a film, but a “film” about film.