Comte Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) the legendary French libertine and writer of dirty stories who lent his name to the term "sadism " goofs away the last decadent years of his life in an insane asylum. But the black-market publication of his latest porno masterpiece upsets the unorthodox arrangements he has with a mischievous chambermaid (Kate Winslet) and the open-minded priest who administers the facility (Joaquin Phoenix). Soon a harsh new supervisor (Michael Caine) arrives with orders to break the unrepentant Marquis.
While he bears little physical resemblance to the historical de Sade -- a 350-pound 64-year-old at the time of his death in 1814 -- Rush ("Shine") nails the combustible mixture of monster and intellectual rebel that makes the character such a fascinating counterculture icon. Meanwhile "Titanic" leading lady Winslet has almost too much sultry star presence for what is little more than an overglorified henchwoman part. The talented Phoenix ("Gladiator") has much more to work with as a young priest caught in an increasingly painful moral dilemma.
Philip Kaufman who previously indulged in raunchy literary biography with 1990's "Henry and June " digs into substantial issues about free speech and the incendiary power of ideas in a piece that plays like "Amadeus" meets "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Kaufman and screenwriter Doug Wright (adapting his own stage play) mean to wash all this down with as much lurid teen sex necrophilia and S&M as they can cram into an art film but there's something a little too earnestly deliberate about their attempts to be crude and salacious. Their Marquis is an entertaining enough fellow but he starts to wear out his welcome as this highbrow tour of hell plods through its somewhat tedious second hour.