*. OK, so the full title is 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. Just to get that out of the way.
*. It’s always hard to make a film of a play look like a film, but how much harder when making a film of a play within a play, and that play a musical? Might we like the show, but still not find it a great movie?
*. I’ve never seen a live production of Marat/Sade, but I have the feeling it probably works better on stage. One thing that a movie can do that a play can’t, however, is force the perspective. The camera limits our vision, narrows our attention on what it wants us to see. Peter Brook makes good use of this here, going for lots of tight close-ups that increase the already dense sense of claustrophobia. We really don’t want to be so close to this particular gang of characters. Our proper place is in that dark audience on the other side of the bars.
*. The camera can also become an actor, as when it spins about madly in the final outbreak of orgiastic violence. Or a voyeur, as we wonder if we’re going to see a real jailbreak with the lady’s bosom being set free when as is raped. Does that make us feel dirty? Should it? De Sade might still be playing us.
*. We don’t have as many movies today that are this interested in political theory. This isn’t to say we don’t still have political movies (though the most political tend to be documentaries). But after the “end of history” was announced there haven’t been as many advocates for revolution as there were in the 1960s.
*. But it’s not just the rightward turn of Western politics that has dated this movie. There’s also the slippage in general historical knowledge. I wonder how many people, even theatregoing types, have enough of an acquaintance with the French revolution and the rest of the historical background of this play to make much sense of it today. In the 1960s you could count on a reasonably well educated audience being familiar with the basic points being covered. Not any more. I think the vast majority of even highly educated people today would find most of the historical material here obscure. That may sound like grumpy old man talk, but I think it’s true. I’m not saying it’s a good or a bad thing, but cultural literacy has been dropping for a while now.
*. That is, however, part of this movie’s message. What we’re being presented with is the situation in 1793 (the year of Marat’s death) commenting on the situation in 1808 (time present in the play), commenting on the situation in 1963 (the date of Peter Weiss’s play) and 1967 (that of Brook’s film), commenting on the situation today (whenever that may be). It’s an adaptable message, that the new boss is always the same as the old boss. So Napoleon is the British prime minister or the American president, and you’d better not say anything bad about them.
*. The boxes within boxes also make it hard to judge where one’s sympathies lie. Marat is the idealistic hero of the piece, at least compared to de Sade as cynical voluptuary and the warden as foppish bureaucrat, but Marat is also de Sade’s creation. When de Sade speaks we feel he’s outside of the play, offering up authorial insight or commentary, whereas Marat is only reading his lines and Charlotte Corday is a puppet, seeming half asleep and just about to collapse whenever she has to get up and do something.
*. Brook is fully in tune with Weiss’s material, and this is essentially a filmed version of his original British production, with much of the original cast. It set a standard. The cast are credible. It’s hard to watch Ian Richardson and not see Francis Urquhart scheming up something behind those piercing eyes. Glenda Jackson is convincingly out of it. The design is suitably grubby and the photography by David Watkin is infused with a soft industrial light (all of it, apparently, coming from the “window” wall).
*. Is it a great movie? No. But it’s a great production of an interesting play that still has something to say to us in the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, I think we’re more likely to just see de Sade as the hero today and enjoy the chaos, rather than be concerned with Marat’s revolutionary political dreams.