Excess is best. Or at least excess is great while it lasts. So is the message of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006).While Coppola’s film does attempt to present the Queen of France’s point of view, placing her debauchery in the context of her heritage and youth, the film depends almost solely on a litany of gluttonous imagery. Scorsese makes no such effort, starting and ending with scenes meant to shock – dwarf tossing through orgies to drugs on top of drugs – that becomes tedious and, rather than offer a point to reflect, childishly glorify the experience. There might be a moral buried somewhere in these films – after all our heroes meet bad ends – but that isn’t the theme of either. Instead we are made witness to tributes to consumption, all of it beyond our wildest dreams – palaces and helicopters – and how marvelous that really is. It is an interesting comparison of time periods – the French Revolution and Wall Street America – exposing two societies which hid behind claims of freedom, knowledge and tolerance to maintain the excesses of the few who continued to grind the species towards extinction.
The Marquis de Sade isn’t much of a writer; his descriptions are tedious, his dialogue static, his narrative almost non-existent and his prose little more than a mask for his sadistic tendencies. His perverse point of view however can be surprisingly accurate, in spite of his delight in the suffering of others, and is relentlessly damning.
Justine, the eponymous character of his novel, never gives up on her fight for virtue, this despite being subjected to the starling perversions of libertines across France – systematic rape, torture, blood-letting and auto-strangulation – and their passionate arguments. States the Compte de Gernande: The happiness that the two sexes may find in each other can be found by one through blind obedience and by the other through the greatest possible domination. If it were not Nature’s intention that one of the sexes should tyrannize the other, would she not have created them of equal strength? (176) Says Monsieur Roland: The poor are part of Nature’s plan. In creating men of unequal strength, she has convinced us of her wish that this inequality should be preserved despite the changes our civilization would bring her laws. It would be going against Nature’s wishes to disturb the equilibrium that is the basis of her sublime organization, to work towards an equality that would be dangerous for society, to encourage indolence and sloth, to teach the poor to steal from the rich when the rich refuse to help. (216) Says Baroness Dubois: Our laws wish in vain to restore order and bring men back to virtue. Too unjust to achieve this, too inadequate to succeed, they will take people off the beaten track for a moment, but they will never get them to leave it. When it is in the general interest for men to be corrupt, anyone who is unwilling to become so with the rest will therefore be pushing against the general interest. (220)
Monsieur Saint-Florent concludes: The weak must give in to the desires of the strongest or else fall victim to their wickedness. (248)