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Q&A: Miskatonic Institute’s Virginie Sélavy Talks Marquis de Sade Cinema

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Yesterday, Virginie Sélavy discussed the theories of S&M in film she’s covering as part of the courses at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies’ newly opened London branch. Today, she focuses the discussion on the man who literally invented part of that practice: the Marquis de Sade.

Sélavy, the founder of Electric Sheep, a digital magazine focusing on transgressive cinema, first encountered de Sade’s writings as a young intellectual. She brings to Miskatonic (see its official website here) years of intense study of de Sade’s work and times, as well as the filmmakers inspired by de Sade (including Jess Franco, whose JUSTINE is pictured above), BDSM dynamics and the nature of psychosexual power exchanges.

FANGORIA: What was the first book you read by de Sade, and how were you introduced to his work?

VIRGINIE SÉLAVY: JUSTINE. I was a teenager when I read it, and it felt transgressive because it was the first time I had read about sex in such extreme ways. How was I introduced to it? I can’t remember. My parents had lots of books at home, but I don’t recall that one being in their collection. So I probably went and bought it, but I can’t remember what prompted that.

FANG: What did you explore after reading JUSTINE?

SELAVYDESADE1SÉLAVY: My next one after that was PHILOSOPHY IN THE BEDROOM. And then I was really interested in JULIETTE, which is the companion book to JUSTINE and yet one that is much less talked about. JUSTINE is probably the first one that people have heard of or read about. It’s interesting that it’s the one that’s so frequently adapted in films, when Juliette to me is a much more interesting character. She is the one who’s on the side of vice, the one who is evil and therefore not a victim, whereas Justine, who seems to have fascinated so many people and who has come to be a key character in people’s reading of de Sade, is the victim. I find that quite interesting, because JUSTINE is a lot more readily available in print as well—it’s a lot easier to read JUSTINE than JULIETTE in France.

FANG: De Sade is known for his fictional work, but a lot of it has a sociopolitical background. Can you discuss your exploration into why he went in this direction? Did you study him as a person in French political history?

SÉLAVY: In that sense, I don’t know, but certainly in his philosophical writing. I find it interesting that in the cases of both de Sade and [writer] Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, sexual subversion is connected to a period of political and social upheaval and revolution, and the collapse of an old order.

What I find fascinating in de Sade is the fact that he takes all of the ideas of his time to their ultimate and logical conclusion, which is where no other philosopher was able to go. He takes the claim that there is no God to its ultimate conclusion. None of the other thinkers of the time would do that. They all found a way of wrestling some sort of system or ideology in place of God, so as to keep a moral framework, or a framework of conduct for the human—which de Sade refuses to do, hence the extreme behavior it leads to. It’s that total, absolute freedom in de Sade that I find fascinating.

FANG: How are you building that interest in de Sade into the class you’re teaching this week?

SÉLAVY: I find it interesting to see how he was adapted in the cinema. One: the focus on JUSTINE overall, and the female victim type of character. Two: the fact that so many filmmakers reintroduce the idea of love into stories where it has very little or no part, or plays a part that is then totally subverted. Three: Many films use de Sade for the erotic content of his stories, but never go further than that. In his work, that is only the point of departure, and then it goes much further and becomes—well, not erotic anymore, but horrific. The fact that so many people [who adapt de Sade] just stop before it gets disturbing is very interesting.

FANG: What films will you be discussing?

SELAVYDESADE2SÉLAVY: I’ll be talking a little bit about Jess Franco’s adaptations of de Sade, but not too much because in April we’ve got Stephen Thrower talking about Franco. I’ll be discussing Italian films like THE FRIGHTENED WOMAN and THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH. I’ll be getting into the more cerebral and artistic takes on sadomasochism you find in French cinema—Henri-Georges Clouzot and WOMAN IN CHAINS, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Also, the use of sadomasochism as a political metaphor, in Kôji Wakamatsu’s THE EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET, for instance. THE STORY OF O as well—again, this relationship between sexual and political subversion. I’ll be talking about how some of these films are used to represent the conflict between men and women, and about the way in which women are portrayed—as submissive masochists or victims, or dominating the quest for pleasure.

FANG: In Europe, you have cinema that deals with sex and violence together, as opposed to America, where you have so much violence, but it can’t touch sex.

SÉLAVY: Yeah, yeah—I think you’re right. In all those European films, there is an attempt to portray the complexity of relationships, and the fact that violence can be part of love, can be connected to love. There are many films that explore that, and not necessarily in a very sexual way. At the time, there was a real effort to be truthful and honest in the depiction of human relationships, and sexual relationships are part of that. That’s why I believe there are so many of those movies made in Europe. In Japan, it’s a little bit different; there is an enormous connection between sex and violence, and it can become quite disturbing, and quite misogynistic and shocking.

But the most interesting films of that period also dramatize the violence that was present in Japanese society at that time—between men and women, but also between generations. Through the portrayal of male/female relationships, you have a portrayal of social relationships, including between authority and rebels, between older people and younger people.

FANG: When do you feel authority becomes misogynistic in these movies, or in their philosophy?

SÉLAVY: There are films I find fascinating but am still unsure about. For instance, if you take THE EMBRYO HUNTS IN SECRET, it’s a film some people would probably think is misogynistic. It’s quite hard to watch, because you see an older man torture a younger woman for most of the film, call her names and treat her horribly. Seen on a certain level, it’s very unpleasant. It’s very ambiguous, and with Wakamatsu, you always have to be a bit careful, because nothing is ever quite simple. On one level, there is an exploitative element, because you see a beautiful woman being tortured and humiliated. On another level, everything that the man says is meant to show that he represents the older generation, the people who feel that Japan has lost its traditional values, especially where women are concerned. He’s punishing this younger woman who is sexually liberated. We know she has slept with various men before him. And the end would seem to suggest that Wakamatsu is on the side of the woman—but for most of the film, what you see is her suffering.

SELAVYDESADE3

So I won’t say that I like it, but I find it very interesting because it dramatizes this whole complex conflict: the gender-based, but also generational, conflict, in Japan society. It’s an uncomfortable film, but I find movies like this intriguing because they are probably more honest than a more politically correct attempt at dealing with this sort of subject matter.

FANG: Do you think misogyny comes from content or from the creator? I’ve always felt it comes from the creator’s point of view when they’re making the work, and someone like Gaspar Noé has discussed that he’s exploring his conflicts around women, though I would not necessarily call a lot of his films misogynistic. I would call films like MOONSTRUCK or other romantic comedies misogynistic, because they keep within certain gender boundaries and expectations of what women should do, and that they’re prizes to be won.

SÉLAVY: I completely agree with you. I find mainstream films, or even new wave films, much more misogynistic than, I don’t know, rape-revenge movies, exploitation films that may be seen as misogynistic by a different type of audience. I’d rather have someone who was ambivalent about women but explored that ambivalence in film, because I think that leads to very interesting things. One: to honesty. But also to the creation of some very interesting female characters, which I’d much rather identify with than all the women in romantic comedies. Whether the misogyny comes from the content, or from the creator—yes, the creator, but at the same time, what I find interesting is when the creator is not in full control of his creation, and when things seep in that may show ambivalence, ambiguity and tension, I find those elements more intriguing than maybe more “controlled” or repressed representations of women.

FANG: In essence, what do you think de Sade is trying to tell us as his audience?

SÉLAVY: One after another, he demolishes all the ideologies, all the rules, all the conventions that mankind has built for itself to control behavior. He does not allow us to believe in any false constructions of the mind. Probably, at the end of it, you get to the point where you should feel entirely free in any of your desires, in any of your impulses, behavior or anything like that.

FANG: Why, at that time period, was that message so important?

SÉLAVY: I see him as the logical conclusion, the reflection, of his time—which is the end of God, the atheism that starts to dominate, and the reflection on the nature of man, and on the nature of happiness. That is his answer. He fully follows the demolition of the religious ideology that was started at the time, and takes it to its logical conclusion. The same thing with the reflection on man, and the reflection on happiness. In a way, he’s a product of his time. In another way, he is perfectly unique because he takes all these ideas much further than anyone else.

FANG: How do the films stack up as far as pushing boundaries, and being atheistic and sex/exploitation films?

SÉLAVY: I don’t think that’s an aspect that’s explored with much depth in any of the films. However, what I find quite interesting is that you have this exploration of transgressive sexuality, and what some would see as immorality at a time of great social and political upheaval. It corresponds to social revolution. Of course it was motivated by the fact that you could start to show more sex in films, so there is a very pragmatic reason for this interest in de Sade at that point. But there is also a fascinating correspondence between the sexual pushing of boundaries and political revolution.

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About the author
Heather Buckley
Heather has a dual career as a Producer (Red Shirt Pictures) and a film journalist. Raised on genre since the age of 13, she’s always been fascinated by extreme art cinema, monster movies and apocalyptic culture. Her first love was a Gorezone no. 9 bought at Frank's Stationary in Keyport, NJ. She has not looked back since. Follow her on Twitter @_heatherbuckley
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