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Marquis directed by Henri Xhonneux at the Harvard Film Archive through February 14

By John Aboud

"Marquis" examines the work of the Marquis de Sade, the French nobleman with a legendary penchant for bizarre sexual escapades. Sade's writings detail every form of sexual perversion and violent fixation conceivable. Few besides the surrealists and the existentialists credit him with any great contribution to literature, but "Marquis" derives both political and psychological insights from his legacy.

Of course, in adapting Sade's work for film, director Henri Xhonneux faces an obvious dilemma: how can one possibly depict the contents of a book like 120 Days of Sodom without the result being banned in every country on the globe? Xhonneux's solution is to hide his actors under elaborate animatronic masks not unlike those used in Jim Henson's "The Dark Crystal." No human faces appear in the film. And though Miss Piggy wasn't above making a few amorous overtures to Kermit, she surely never dreamed of carrying on as the pigs, dogs and cows of "Marquis" do.

The masks transform the actors into cartoon-like creations who rape, rend and mutilate each other. Viscerally effective but some-how distant, the brutal sexual situations manage to shock without offending. However, anyone with delicate sensibilities will likely not be able to stomach the sight of ribbons, knives and concrete interacting with appendages that aren't designed for such rough treatment.

In addition to rendering the violence more tolerable, the masks emphasize the animalistic nature of the drives with which Sade was obsessed. Portraying sado-masochism as conducted by animals implicitly challenges the notion that this is an acceptable form of sexual expression; the masks draw a visible barrier between reason and desire. And as if that were not obvious enough, the film also includes a running dialogue between a man ( and his gargantuan, sentient penis. While the depictions spring from a liberal attitude towards sex, the ethics motivating them are conservative.

"Marquis" focuses on the aforementioned dog-marquis, who is imprisoned in the Bastille. Just prior to the 1789 revolution, a conspiracy is launched to liberate a jailed bourgeois leader. The marquis is asked to aid his fellow prisoner's escape by "distracting" their lascivious jailer. This prompts one of several debates with Colin (the penis) over who's really in control of the marquis' body. The marquis must accept the consequences each time he uses his companion Colin. His imprisonment and the political furor raging around him prompts a realization of the links between greed and art, opression and decadence, lust and autonomy. Sex is the nexus of these various concerns.

This film could easily have degenerated into boring moralism or vacuous exploitation. But a wry sense of humor links these two strains without letting either predominate. Key ideas lie cloaked in outrageous jokes both slapstick and morbid. As a scene involving lobsters and mayonnaise proves, a well-chosen coating can make even the thorniest issues more palatable.

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