Wednesday 4 January 2017

Marquis (1989)

Director: Henri Xhonneux
Writers: Roland Topor and Henri Xhonneux, based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade
Stars: Bien de Moor, Gabrielle van Damme, Philippe Bizot, Bernard Cogniaux, Olivier Decheveau and Pierre Decuypere

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a Weird Wednesdays review but, if Apocalypse Later has become a place of discovery for films you may not know about, it’s the purest Apocalypse Later project there is because these are movies that you may not even believe exist! For instance, would you believe that someone would dare to make a movie about the French revolution with a key focus on the Marquis de Sade, who’s locked up in the Bastille writing pornographic novels? That’s weird but perhaps not weird enough for Weird Wednesdays. How about if all the human actors appear as anthropomorphic animals, aided by freakish masks that journey deep into the Uncanny Valley? Yeah, that’s a little more like Weird Wednesdays territory, but we need something more to seal the deal. I know! What if the most prominent character is Colin, the Marquis’s gigantic penis, with whom he chats at length and depth, their relationship being the most important one in the picture? Yes, now we have Weird Wednesdays material!

I should mention quickly that this is not the outrageous comedy you may expect. There are comedic elements, of course, most of them utterly surreal, but it doesn’t reach for laughs and there’s as much history and tragedy as there is comedy. It’s nothing like we might remember from Spitting Image or Meet the Feebles, to name but two easy comparisons. Also, those are both puppet shows, whereas this is really acted by human beings, merely in masks that completely cover their heads and often parts of their bodies, a sort of un-furry version of the furry community. The story is also full of outrageous topics, but they’re not played exploitatively. If anything, most are underplayed, especially rape, a core plot element that affects a few of the characters. One was raped before the movie begins and is pregnant because of it; for political reasons, scenes are staged to suggest a more palatable rapist to the public. Circumstances prompt the same character to be raped again, during the film, but that isn’t shown on camera.

And while I did just describe the Marquis as ‘a more palatable rapist’, not a description I ever thought I’d type, he’s a philosophical chap here, far from a ravenous beast. Most of the characters are given animal forms to mirror their personalities, like Ambert, the guard who appears rat-like both inside and out. The Marquis is given dog form, looking somewhat like a sedate old spaniel, and he can’t seem to get worked up over anything. Now, I’m no expert on the Marquis de Sade, but I really doubt he was quite so sedate a pervert as he appears here. Sure, he happily writes his twisted erotica, some of which we see brought to life in claymation form: a ram, for instance, which literally splits his naked body in two before one of its horns transforms into a black snake which spits out semen-like venom. But in this film, the Marquis is merely eloquent, whether his words are spoken or written; it’s Colin, his chatty appendage, who wants action. They’re two halves of a single personality, making this a sort of schizophrenic buddy movie.

It’s important that Colin, whom we might see as having the most animalistic nature of any character in the movie, given that he’s always trying to persuade the Marquis to stick him into holes, even they’re slits in the stone walls of his cell, is the only character who looks remotely human. Sure, he’s a huge phallus, jutting from between his master’s legs like a hobby horse, so large that the Marquis could fellate himself without even leaning over, but he has carefully crafted and animated features and a dome that looks like a human brain. And, of course, he wears a turtleneck, because this is a French film and, apparently, the Marquis wasn’t Jewish. It’s hilarious to consider that American audiences might have more issue with the fact that Colin has a foreskin than anything else in the movie, but that’s an aside. What’s important is that the dog-faced Marquis is all about restraint, or at least the channeling of urges into deviant literature, while the human-faced Colin is a real hound dog. Their relationship is deep (no pun intended).
There are other prisoners in the Bastille beyond the Marquis, who has been locked up for a peculiar form of blasphemy (defecating on a crucifix, presumably in a place of worship). There’s Pigonou the Grave, the hog that his name suggests, who was ironically put into prison for circulating bad pork; apparently cutting off his own leg in recompense didn’t go far enough. He apparently shares a cell with Lupino, a member of the Patriotic Citizens who are pledged to revolution, and the owner of much more intellect than his dim-witted cellmate. I’m not sure if he’s really a ram or a goat, but the other prisoner of note is Justine, who is clearly a cow. She’s the lady who was raped and by no less a personage than the king. She’s pregnant with his child and the powers that be are keen to scotch any sort of rumour in these turbulent times. That’s the preening rooster of a governor, Gaetan de Preaubois, and his priest, Dom Pompero, who appears in the form of a camel, presumably for a reason couched in French culture which eludes me.

The cast of characters is small and focused, but not quite that much. Beyond Ambert, the guard rat, who wants nothing more than to be buggered senseless by the Marquis, there’s also Juliette, another Patriotic Citizen, whose attempts to break Lupino out of the Bastille have led her to become the governor’s dominatrix of choice. She’s a horse, or perhaps a mule because she’s single-minded, while her co-conspirators are Jacquot, a parrot, and the boar who runs the Wounded Nightingale where they meet. The financier of the group, whose name I never caught, is a relaxed monkey, who claims to be a cousin of the king. There are so few characters that the filmmakers have time to explore their motivations, but this clearly aims at being a fable, telling a historical story through the use of archetypes represented by the animals they most resemble. In other words, they’re simple characters with little depth. Only the Marquis, as befits the title character, has any real substance and that’s explored through him talking with his penis.
And I can’t highlight how important that is. It sounds like a joke, a skit or (dare I say it) a gag, but it’s the foundation of this picture. Whatever the filmmakers had in mind, it was rooted (yes, I do apologise for the unintentional puns) in a conversation between the head with a brain and the head without. And I can’t help wonder why they thought that it was such a bright idea to create the film. The writers were Roland Topor and the director, Henri Xhonneux. The latter was Belgian and he made a few other films, including a 1970 feature with the suggestive title of Take Me, I’m Old Enough. His most relevant other work, though, is an animated pastiche of TV news that he made with Topor for French television called Téléchat in the mid-eighties, starring a cat and an ostrich. The style is different but not greatly so and at least one of its regular voice actors, Valérie Kling, returned here to voice the lead penis. It aired between 1982 and 1986, running for 234 episodes, so it’s not hard (there I go again) to see this as the next logical step.

Except that that step took them into some rather wild territory. The most outrageous scene involves a crawfish, some mayonnaise and a jailer’s buttocks, because even Colin has to say no sometimes, even if he’s already committed himself. However, this is taken from the life and work of the Marquis de Sade, so even the tame parts aren’t that tame. Justine, who becomes quite the aficionado of his writings, tells him that Hitting Low with Two Dying Nuns is her favourite. One claymation interpretation involves a quartet of monks being pleasured by naked women while another attempts to balance on top of a vast pole, only to fall and die mangled in a conveniently placed pile of thorns. There’s even an orgy scene, in which the governor’s confessor reads the Marquis to the ladies under his cassock and those writhing around him, all wearing outrageous masks carved like spreadeagled women. It’s here that he commits to stealing the prisoner’s work to sell to the fish-faced journalist Willem von Mandarine for publication.
And yet it all comes back to Colin, who complains to the Marquis about how many verbs he uses and, really, this is what’s the most shocking thing. It’s not the torture, suicide or rape. It’s not the BDSM, though a leather-clad horse caning the backside of a rooster is not something I can honestly claim to have seen before. It’s not even the scene where Justine starts to suck the blood off Colin’s previously bandaged head, before Ambert steals her away to milk her on the rack. It’s the fact that this picture ought to play like degenerate pornography but is instead full of history, literature and philosophy. It’s like a porno movie made by the Amish or the Mormons, but with all the porn taken out, so that what remains is a more accessible artistic layer hiding something that was never meant to be family friendly. Beyond the frequent presence of a vast talking penis, who is either erect or hidden from view, this is surprisingly tame for something so decadent and depraved. It’s like the art actually matters.

Xhonneux’s collaborator, both on Téléchat and Marquis, was Roland Topor, a multi-talented Frenchman. I knew his name from the 1964 horror novel he wrote called The Tenant, which was later filmed by Roman Polanski, and as the actor who played Renfield in Werner Herzog’s version of Nosferatu. Others know him as a collaborator with René Laloux on such pictures as Fantastic Planet. His career is full of tantalising moments though; he designed the magic lanterns for Fellini’s Casanova, wrote songs for The Butcher, the Star and the Orphan (among many other roles) and contributed monstrous drawings for the opening credits of Long Live Death. This is the filmography of an artist, someone who wrote, painted, composed, drew, acted, animated and filmed. This film is certainly a creation of artists who have more concerns about critical acclaim than financial reward because, let’s face it, the latter was never going to happen; it still hasn’t seen a Region 1 release and, frankly, probably never well.
It fits much better into the context of gothic novels like The Monk, recently filmed in France by Dominik Moll with Vincent Cassel; The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine, published in France in the second half of the seventeenth century; and, of course, the writings of the Marquis de Sade, a French aristocrat who is more relevant today than when he died in 1814 in the Charenton lunatic asylum. I find it fascinating that most people think of de Sade as a sexual deviant, whose works and teachings have found a welcoming home in European exploitation films, but his legacy is just as relevant in philosophical circles, foreshadowing existentialism, surrealism and even psychoanalysis. Perhaps a movie like this, which seems utterly weird to my English eyes and to the American eyes of my better half, might be worthy of family discussion in France, where hardcore pornography has been broadcast on late-night TV for decades. Like the work of de Sade, it will fascinate and repel, often at the same time, but hey, can’t that be said of all the best art?

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