If you thought that geoffrey rush in ”Quills” played the Marquis de Sade as more quaint than scandalous — a mad clown of free love — just wait till you get a load of Daniel Auteuil’s painfully dry and measured performance in Sade. The movie, a talky French costume drama, is set at a beautiful prison estate for Revolution-era aristocrats, where Auteuil’s de Sade spends most of his time trying to liberate the mind of a precocious teenage virgin (Isild Le Besco) who looks, on the face of it, to have dirtier thoughts than he does. To say that the Marquis comes off as a bit restrained here would be an understatement. Auteuil, who resembles a more virile Andy Kaufman, might be playing the world’s most passionate professor of semiotics.
I realize that a movie about the Marquis de Sade needn’t feature graphic depictions of the supreme violations that fueled his work and his mind. Yet Benoit Jacquot, the director of ”Sade,” has ground the essence of de Sade’s hellacious perversity down to a tasteless fine powder of cosmopolitan erotic smugness. Auteuil, with his steely, handsome glare, stands around pontificating about unshackled sexuality as if de Sade were nothing more than a bourgeois swinger ahead of his time. Sade achieves the near-impossible: It turns the Marquis de Sade into a dullard.