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Isabelle Huppert Reads Marquis De Sade review at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – ‘explicit, uncomfortable, compelling’

Isabelle Huppert. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics Isabelle Huppert in Elle. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The notorious Marquis de Sade wrote Nouvelle Justine in 1791 and Juliette a decade later. The title characters represent ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’, and the books are filled with lengthy, graphic descriptions of rape, orgies, violence and over-sized penises.

Napoleon found the works so distasteful he threw the author in prison, an action that only added to the Marquis’s reputation as the epitome of debauchery and immorality. Hearing Isabelle Huppert reading a combination of the texts, it’s surprising to what extent certain passages remain shocking even though we now live in an age of ubiquitous hardcore internet porn.

The ‘shock’ perhaps resides in hearing the words spoken by a single female performer. There’s a brilliant ambiguity to how the Marquis’s writing is intended to be received when spoken by Huppert. Do we understand them as titillating, misogynistic, boorish or philosophical? Or, as is actually the case, a combination of all of these.

A greater proportion of Raphael Enthoven’s edited text is given over to Justine, who Huppert performs as a pious and somewhat simpering young woman. It’s clear she gets more enjoyment from embodying the self-assured, amoral Juliette.

The one-night-only performance at the Southbank Centre was slightly marred by problems with the sound equipment – issues Huppert overcame with studied professionalism.

Predictably, the sections given over to Sade’s rambling philosophising on religion and death drag in comparison to the explicit sexual fantasies. It’s deeply uncomfortable to sit through at times, but it’s precisely this that makes it compelling and unashamedly provocative.

Isabelle Huppert: ‘I don’t bother with character. I try to be myself on stage’

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Isabelle Huppert adds yet more layers of subversion to the Marquis de Sade’s infamous writings