Dir: Benoit Jacquot. France. 2000. 100 mins.

Prod co: Aliceleo. French dist: Ocean Films. Int'l sales: TF1 International (33) 1 4141 1504). Prod: Patrick Godeau. Scr: Jacques Fieschi. DoP: Benoit Delhomme. Prod des: Sylvain Chauvelot. Editor: Luc Barnier. Main cast: Daniel Auteuil, Marianne Denicourt, Jeanne Balibar, Gregoire Colin, Isild Le Besco, Jean-Pierre Cassel.

This pungently-funded French biopic makes a decent job of setting the record straight on the legendary reprobate Marquis de Sade. It is marred, though, by a lazy plot and, to some extent, by the casting of Daniel Auteuil as Sade. Though Auteuil's performance conveys the Marquis' sharp intelligence and the strength of his noble, single-minded dedication to depravity, there is something about the actor's rendition that doesn't convince; we never forget that this is Auteuil doing Sade, with a Liberace haircut to boot.

The film focuses on a couple of years in the later life of the Marquis, when the idealism of the French Revolution had degenerated into the chop-fest of the Terror. Confined with a motley assortment of other aristos in a palatial detention centre, Sade fixes his attention on Sensible (Denicourt), a fresh-faced young virgin, while continuing to receive visits from his old flame, Madame Santero (Balibar), who has meanwhile taken up with one of Robespierre's young lieutenants. A play is staged, trysts are arranged, inmates are carted off for the chop, and Sade finally has his way, or rather, has the gardener have his way, with stroppy, pouting Sensible.

Jacques Fieschi's script urges the point that Sade is far more a philosopher and rebel against society than a pornographer; but the libertarian agenda - like the film's other themes - is pushed only so far. The story is as flaccid as the fifty-something Marquis, and in the end, sumptuous period sets and costumes seem to be a stronger guiding principle than the triumph of Sadian instinct over Robespierrian ideals. Along the way, some tricksy tableaux are set up - including a heap of naked bodies in a mass grave, photographed to resemble an etching of an orgy scene from Justine.

While a respectable domestic run is assured, Sade will make only a small dent on foreign markets. If it is to have any impact at all abroad, the film should be released before Fox Searchlight's Marquis-flick Quills - directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Rush, Winslet and Caine - emerges as the last word in wide-screen Sadism later this autumn.