INGMAR BERGMAN’S MADAME DE SADE (1992)

(a “myself” review by Timothy J. Verret)

When I was in college, I went to see my advisor in his office and noticed he had a poster on his wall of a play (I can’t remember the name of the play) directed by Ingmar Bergman. When I saw it, I told my advisor, “I LOVE Ingmar Bergman’s films.” My advisor said, “If you love Ingmar Bergman’s films, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen his direction of theatrical plays.” As this review will point out, the advisor wasn’t kidding!

Some time back, I wrote a review of Ingmar Bergman’s production of August Strindberg’s THE GHOST SONATA I watched on YouTube (https://timothyjverret.blog/2020/07/18/august-strindbergs-the-ghost-sonata-directed-by-ingmar-bergman/). In that review, I talked about my emotional reaction to the production which often left me utterly speechless. Ingmar Bergman’s MADAME DE SADE, another gem of a find on YouTube, also left me utterly speechless. I honestly (and that’s a key word) do not know how Bergman is able to direct with such authority and authenticity, leaving the viewer this way. I think it has a lot to do with said authenticity and deep truth, especially as far as the human condition is concerned.

MADAME DE SADE is a play written by Mishima Yukio that was published in 1965. It is a play with nothing but women and if I know Ingmar Bergman as I think I know Ingmar Bergman, this is his specialty. Bergman knows women intimately and has been quoted as saying he likes to work with actresses because they are more emotionally available. The actresses in MADAME DE SADE are flat-out brilliant. The play centers on Marquise de Sade (a man, so he ever makes an appearance in this play), who was a French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher, and writer, famous for his libertine sexuality. His sexual desires and perversity ran the gamut of both women and men. The characters in MADAME DE SADE include Marquise’s wife, the wife’s mother, and some other highly strong-willed yet highly self-destructive women. The settings in this theatrical production are to the bare minimum which works beautifully at centering on the women’s emotions (or lack thereof) and a whole lot of words. This, indeed, is a VERY wordy play, but this works beautifully, as well, because when there is some physical action in the production, boy is it ever physical!

In this review, I primarily want to focus on one main thing of Ingmar Bergman’s MADAME DE SADE, and this is something that multiple women speak throughout the play. It’s when these words are uttered: “The Marquise is myself.” Wow! These women are sexually perverted? Well, maybe not all sexually perverted, but they are most definitely perverted. “Perverted” is defined as “the alteration of something from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended.” The women characters are perverted in that sense, because they cannot see that their need for control and power is distorted and corrupted from what has never been intended. I guess you can call this an “ego perversion.” It simply boils down to this: “The Marquise is myself!” It’s the “mirror thing.” “You spot it, you got it!” When these women are so quick to judge the Marquise de Sade for his sexual perversion, they are not so quick to see their own perversion of unnatural instincts for power and defined class status and control. They are the Bible’s Pharisees! And we, as viewers, take great note of this dynamic being worked out in this play. If dialogue is what you want, and MADAME DE SADE is mostly dialogue, the “mirror thing” goes like this:

WE: “What’s wrong with him or her?”

WE: “What’s wrong with me?”

“The Marquise is myself!” The wife says it first, I believe, and the rest of the women join in (mostly against their will) for this dreaded merriment. And even if they don’t necessarily join in, it’s right there, staring them right in the face, and they will have to join in eventually. We as viewers join in, too, because life is filled with this “speck in your eye while I have a plank in mine” (Matthew 7:3). “I’m not like him or her!” Oh, yeah, you are! And you better believe you are or else everyone you meet will shine light on what you try to shadow.

And I’d be certainly remiss if I didn’t comment on the direction of Ingmar Bergman in MADAME DE SADE. And let me just say it is often quite difficult to comment on the genius of director Ingmar Bergman, because I honestly (there’s that key word again!) don’t know how he is able to direct as effectively as he does. I can only hopefully emulate Bergman’s style in my own direction (onstage and offstage), which is about a character facing the audience while the other characters face away from the audience, as well as the character. I think for Bergman, this is about directing “shame.” When Bergman meticulously arranges actors onstage in this way, he is conveying “shame.” For dialogue not uttered in this play, the character facing the audience is saying, “I have shame. Please look at me,” while the other characters looking away are saying, “I have shame. Please DON’T look at me.” But when all the characters are on the same “playing field,” no pun intended, either all looking out at the audience or looking at one another, they are connecting, they are sharing their hurts and pains, and they are ripe to heal one another in a sacred bond of the shared frailty of the human condition. Bergman is famous for his film’s closeups and in MADAME DE SADE, which was actually filmed for Swedish television, Bergman did get a chance to use his closeups that he loves so much, but he also had a large stage to do his trickery of distances, spatially and internally, present between these female characters.

Often while watching MADAME DE SADE, I had cardiac arrests, much as I did while watching THE GHOST SONATA. I held my breath, my heart was beating very, very fast, and, once again, I was utterly speechless. This is a testament not only to Bergman’s sublime direction but also because Bergman chooses plays like these to silence us as viewers so he can get us to the heart of the matter. Bergman doesn’t want to direct “fluffy” and “silly” plays that are about buffoonery and slapstick (not that there is anything wrong with that). Bergman is a “heart” director. He is way more interested in words, feelings, dilemmas, and conflicts of characters played out through the heart of the human condition. And for this reviewer, that is of great (and often grave) interest to me. Bergman is a deep thinker, obviously, and he “gets me” this way. “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42.7), and no one “gets me” this way quite like Ingmar Bergman or anyone willing to be “got” quite that deep to the heart of the human condition. If you’re willing to be “got” quite that deep, Ingmar Bergman’s MADAME DE SADE is a must-see for you!

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