Of the hundred-or-so films in my Top Ten list, I notice a striking predilection for movies that are “layered”. In some instances, these films are a real pleasure to watch, while in others the cinematic experience is more of a chore. While I definitely prefer movies to be well acted, steadily filmed and smoothly edited, the features that I am completely unprepared to sacrifice concern the psychological complexity of the characters, the depth of the plot and the quality of the script.
Rarely, although occasionally, a movie delivers on every one of those things. If I were to make a list of near-perfect films, it would include two that characterise better than any other the sort of layeredness of which I speak: Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. (2002), and Joel Coen’s Blood Simple (1984).
In the former case, Adaptation. possesses a self-recursiveness in both form and content that would make even Douglas Hofstadter weep. It is no surprise that the film was written by Charlie Kaufmann, whose flawed but brilliant directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, succeeded in turning an entire movie in upon itself; layer under layer, recursively deep.
Blood Simple, on the other hand, was the directorial debut of Joel Coen. While the Coen Brothers have gone on to produce some of the greatest films that I have seen, there is nothing that matches Blood Simple for the complexity of its dialogue. Despite its poor acting and the occasional clunkiness of its camera work, there is scarcely a line in this film that doesn’t function on two, sometimes three, levels simultaneously. It is a masterpiece of screenwriting.
Yesterday evening, I watched a film that I had never seen before, and one that is layered in a manner that I had never previously considered. In a sense, it is as though every aspect of the film (its dialogue, its acting, its setting and its production) operates independently of every other. It is entitled Marat/Sade, and was directed by Peter Brook in 1967. It is a cinematic representation of a German play that was written by Peter Weiss in 1963, entitled (in English), “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed By the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade”. The film (and the play on which it is based) is set in 1808, only fifteen years after the bathtub murder of French revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat. It concerns a performance by the inmates of a lunatic asylum of the last hours of Marat’s life to an audience of powdered aristocrats.
The film works simultaneously on a number of different levels, and while it has a self-referential quality, it does not “swallow itself” in the manner of Kaufmann’s creations. Consider the different levels, both of the production itself and of its substance, in content and in form:
1. The Film (“Form”):
• Peter Brook, who directed the movie, was heavily influenced by Antonin Artaud’s surrealistic conception of Théâtre de la Cruauté: Theatre of Cruelty. It was his belief that theatre needed to show the audience uncomfortable truths, and force them to wrestle with things that they might otherwise avoid. While Michael Haneke took this concept to its absurd limit in his disgusting and artistically worthless Funny Games, Brook utilises it in a far more modest fashion. He presents Marat/Sade voyeuristically, the camera alternating between a dispassionate long-shot that shows the audience of 1808 in silhouetted foreground, and a passionate and involved series of close-ups that follow the individual players, and watch them as they garble their lines, behave inappropriately, and occasionally attempt to molest one another. Brook, who faithfully produces the original script, affects the form of the production, but not its content;
2. The Play (“Content”):
• Peter Weiss, who wrote the original play, was both a pacifist and, politically, a communist. His three-volume opus, The Aesthetics of Resistance, explores the interplay between art and political resistance, which is a theme that comes to the fore in “Marat/Sade” as well. There, he depicts the Marquis de Sade – himself renowned for having adopted a certain proto-Socialism – in his efforts to present his political opinions to an audience of dilettantes and effetes, whose only connection to the events of the French revolution was that it lay in the past, “in history”, and that things are “different now”. Weiss, who certainly had an influence on the form of his original theatrical production, influences the film directed by Brook in terms of its content only;
The Content of the Film/Play:
• The Marquis de Sade (Donatien Alphonse François) was, indeed, imprisoned at the asylum in Charenton, where he spent the final thirteen years of his life. Arrested on the grounds that his literature was pornographic and deranged (although he would better have been arrested on the grounds that it was contrived and poorly written), he has since become a symbol of individualism and the freedom of expression. It is also true that the Marquis was permitted by the asylum’s director to direct plays of his own composition with the inmates as his cast. It is there, however, that the historical verisimilitude ends, for while the Marquis did write some political pamphlets, there is no evidence to suppose that his performances at Charenton were of so overtly a political nature, and what little he wrote on the subject demonstrates that he was actually an admirer of Jean-Paul Marat, and not one of his detractors. So far as the depiction of his play in Marat/Sade is concerned, this play within a play itself operates on more than one level:
3. The Play Within a Play (“Form”):
• For a start, there is the fact of its being performed by lunatics (themselves played by the Royal Shakespeare Company with aplomb). As a result, we must separate the content of the play from its form, for the outer performance of the written material is what immediately captivates us. The leading lady alternates between the fierceness of her role as Marat’s executioner, and the slow, sad reality of her morbid psychosis. Marat, himself, seems unconcerned with his lines at times (requiring prompting in one instance from the Marquis), and settles instead for long periods of staring into space. Another protagonist, Monsieur Duperet, is forcibly restrained during part of his performance after having attempted to molest the leading lady, and in the film’s saddest moment, one of the unnamed characters breaks from his role and crawls around the floor, declaring that he is a thousand years old, “a mad, mad animal“;
4. The Play Within a Play (“Content”):
• Secondly, there is the content of the play itself: the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. Portrayed as a man out of touch with the reality of the revolution, the play invites us to sympathise with Marat’s executioner and to welcome his death. Many of the lines that condemn the regime that survived him, as well as those that condemn the church as an instigator of bloodshed and as a crutch for the weak, were removed in advance by the asylum’s director, but kept in by the seditious Marquis. As such, there is more than one instance in which the director intervenes and the Marquis is forced to pause his play and change his players’ lines. In some instances, the actors persist in calling out those lines in any case, to the consternation of the asylum’s director who apologises to his audience.
The manner in which the director of the asylum, François Simonet de Coulmier, interacts with both the Marquis and his audience is but one of three ways in which the content of the play and its form are inextricably linked. In addition, there are a few occasions in which orderlies need to interfere with the proceedings, to wake up the leading lady, to restrain any growing disquiet, or to threaten an actor who is close to accosting the asylum director’s wife or daughter, both of whom sit within the large cage that houses the director, the orderlies, the Marquis and his cast. In addition, there are the instances in which the Marquis needs to interact with his players, either to restrain or to encourage them, and a visually striking scene in which he participates in the play’s production, narrating the events of the revolution on his knees, while he is mercilessly whipped with a woman’s long hair.
Consider, then, how layered is this production. On the one hand, we have the literal content: politically seditious, supportive of revolution, critical of Napoleon’s regime and condemnatory of the church. To appreciate its impact, we have the setting: an audience of powdered French aristocrats in 1808, who believe that the revolution was a thing of history and who dislike any intimation that the popular struggle continues. At the same time, however, we have the additional level on which the play is being performed, in which the asylum’s director need worry about more than just the feelings of his audience. Here we must consider the play’s form, with its cast of erratic and occasionally violent lunatics, all brought under the control of a man obsessed with torture and pornography.
On a third level, we must remember that this play was written, not in 1808 by the Marquis de Sade, but in 1963 by Peter Weiss. A witness to Nazism, Weiss utilised his play in order to remark upon the connection between artistry and resistance. At a time when the conflict in Vietnam was escalating (against which Weiss was later to demonstrate), the themes of madness and political disquiet, presented before an audience of silent onlookers, says much for Weiss’ opinions of the age in which he lived. Indeed, I get the feeling that he identified with the Marquis in this production, trying desperately to communicate something to his disaffected public, while at the same time remonstrating with the authorities who disliked any encouragement of sedition or dissent.
And then, on the fourth and uppermost level, there is the structure of the film itself. A homage to the likes of Artaud and his Theatre of the Cruel, Peter Brook invites us to participate, again, as spectators. Sitting in the seats of those in 1808 who watched the Marquis’ fictional production, so recently vacated by an audience of 1963, our intentions as viewers have not changed. Whether the content of the film remains politically or ideologically apt is of little import. It is the simple fact of our desire, as voyeurs, to watch it that Brook grapples with. When we subject ourselves to a film of this nature, we are not only asking to be entertained, nor to be educated. We are asking, on some level, to be shocked. As a statement, that is no less profound than the statement made by Weiss, nor that which Weiss put into the mouths of his madmen, torn between their two directors: the sociopathic Marquis de Sade, and the politically naive Abbé de Coulmier.