It would be hard for anyone to follow the critically acclaimed Quills, a vibrant portrayal of the Marquis de Sade, brilliantly coming alive through the talents of Geoffrey Rush. As a point of interest, the recently released Sade was actually made in the same year (2000). Having another strike against it for being foreign with subtitles, it had to take its time coming over to the United States. Being based on a similar subject, and created at the same time, it's nearly impossible to discuss without some sort of comparison.
This Sade (Daniel Auteuil) is no less seductively charismatic than Rush was, but he has less to do, as Sade chooses to focus more attention on the cultural climate than any specific, provocative interaction between characters. Rush was allowed more leeway to display range from torment to arrogance while Auteuil's Sade is a bit too impervious to his surroundings. What they do both achieve is providing an easy attraction. Neither have the stereotypically sexual physique the average woman clambers for, but their wit and intelligence are arousing. The acting isn't necessarily better in the English counterpart, but there is more weight given to individual motivation so that you're more attuned to personal struggles in the progressively oppressive Napoleonic era.
Based on the book La Terreur dans le boudoir, Sade is more ballroom drama than speculative biography, as characters continually swap anecdotes about the ways of the world in a fine tongue. They lie, cheat, and antagonize each other like anyone taking part in a rich soap opera. Varying degrees of character enter frame simply to give a whole idea of the environment, of the many folks who are forced to share space that might not normally ever be in the same room. It may extend the plot to an exhaustive length, but it also provides a well-rounded view of living with a lack of choice.
The most poignant, and thankful, distinction of this import is the presence of Sade's wife Sensible (Marianne Denicourt). Her combination of strength and submission to achieve survival are shades of femininity not often explored in period films that don't look at Queen Elizabeth. Her banter with Sade is a practiced, yet affectionate, flirtation combined with innate human wisdom that nobody else in the film possesses. Their scenes together are rapturous in how they handle unpredictability to achieve a notch above the other.
As for the Kate Winslet "virginal" replacement, Islid Le Besco does an acceptable job of playing exactly what she is, a teenager (in reality 21). She's not given much more to do than rebuke or give in to Sade, with little sense of why she is doing either from one moment to the next. Though it's easy to appreciate the emotional travails of adolescence, one would hope that some of her behavior is in reaction to the many transgressions she is privy to in the claustrophobic environment, but no such connection is ever fully established.
Compared with a racier script and more recognizable names, Sade doesn't have much of a chance to make a mark on viewers. It's a decent glimpse into a time period, and an outcast, that is no longer accessible, but it doesn't necessarily shed more light on its subject than the popular predecessor.
Sade's DVD features an interview with director Benoit Jacquot.