It is the eighteenth century and the most notorious Frenchman around was Louis, The Marquis de Sade (Keir Dullea), a nobleman who penned such outrageous sexual material that it often saw him locked up in prisons and mental asylums for offending public decency - in fact, he spent the best part of three decades behind bars. This did not put him off, and now he looks back upon his life, regarded the pivotal moment when he was forced into a marriage he did not want, all so he could generate the funds to continue living in the style to which he was accustomed. He wanted to marry Anne de Montreuil (Senta Berger), but she would always be tantalisingly out of reach...
The life story of de Sade is probably less interesting than the debauchery he devoted himself to on the page, but that has not prevented filmmakers trying to conjure up the spirit of his literature on film, and this little item was popular low rent genre pic specialists A.I.P.'s try in that vein. Alas, it was an unmitigated disaster both artistically and at the box office, as by applying the approach that had generated hits out of their Edgar Allan Poe series with the same screenwriter, Richard Matheson, the result was a muddily-plotted extravaganza of boobs and bums, European boobs and bums if you will, for this was shot in West Germany, with leaden philosophising liberally dosed throughout.
Dullea was a hot name off the back of his starring role in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey the year before, but for some reason he was attracted to this part despite anyone being able to see how miscast he would be. He had made a minor name for himself before the space travel epic with a line in mentally maladjusted young men in cult movies, but de Sade he was not, deciding against a go at the French accent but sounding hopelessly out of his depth whenever asked to recite the pretentious dialogue. To his credit, Matheson denounced the film as a bastardisation of his original script and intentions, and behind the scenes that was not all that was going off the cinematic rails.
Original director Cy Endfield found himself either fired or walking when he couldn't see eye to eye with the producers, so A.I.P.'s old hand Roger Corman was drafted in to give this a tone not unlike his LSD experience effort The Trip, therefore whole scenes played out as if the Marquis was high on acid and seeing psychedelic visions of, er, boobs and bums. New recruit Gordon Hessler was also on hand to fill in a few blanks, but the old saying many hands make light work was never going to be relevant here, it was too obvious everyone involved was pulling in different directions. The point of the thing was to be a representation of the protagonist's visions as he lay on his deathbed, running through his life as it flashed before his eyes, but in effect this was a barely coherent jumble of invention and supposition.
Every so often there was a scene which seemed to be moving in an interesting direction, say for example the point to be made that sadism and masochism stemmed from an infantile urge to be punished, far removed from the adult desires they were supposed to be - we see de Sade as a young boy being whipped by an attractive maidservant, who has been forced to do so by his wicked uncle the Abbe (John Huston!). But just as a little psychology is looking promising, the film utterly loses its nerve and it's back to the orgies or worse, the fantasy sequences - they even did that hoary old cliché, the imagined court trial where various characters show up to decry our hero (or antihero, if you prefer). Not even the regular female nudity was enough to sustain interest when the mood was so weighed down with a joyless insistence that this wanted you to take it very seriously: like a mix of Jess Franco and Ken Russell, it missed the mark of both completely. You could give this a go as a curio, a costly disaster and relic of the new permissiveness in the late sixties, but you would probably be very bored before long. Music by Billy Strange.