LACOSTE, FRANCE -- The dark tower stands high and sinister above a mountain village. Long tendrils of mist sweep its craggy precipice, as mistral winds whip hillside grass into a wind-stirred cauldron. Below, in narrow twisting lanes, angry villagers issue harsh whispers.
Across the valley, Andre' Bouer stares intently at the brooding sky veiling the tower ruins. "There is my passion, my obsession," he says, pointing a crooked finger. "I'm the last slave of the Marquis de Sade." With a hinted smile, he adds, "that is all my title, all my glory."
The shadow of de Sade haunts the Provenc al countryside. Lord and master here 200 years ago, his "sexual experiments" bequeathed to the Luberon mountains of southern France a touch of infamy still announced by the remote stone ruins looming over the village. Considered by the marquis his laboratoire de Sadisme, Lacoste's cha~teau rises like a stark scar on the dark landscape. "Frowns down on the village," suggests a regional guide.
For more than 45 years, Bouer, 69, whose salt-and-pepper mustache and tinted glasses suggest more a military officer than a retired professor of Shakespeare, has been consumed with reconstructing le cha~teau on le plateau. First drawn to the 11th-century ruins as a 6-year-old during walks with his grandfather, he found his obsession growing as he did. Beginning in 1942, he slowly acquired the site, piece by piece, beginning with an initial 1,800-square-meter purchase for 15 cents. A decade later, after tracking down deeds, he bought the bulk of the estate for $100.
For years he labored alone, piling stones one upon another to rebuild the walls. Now, volunteer armies of Belgian Boy Scouts and Swiss students have helped whip the dungeons into shape, together with six of 42 other known rooms. "I started by myself, then with three students," he confesses. "Now with 140, sometimes I don't know what to do."
Sculptor and gateman Barthelmy Gilles, 32, lives in a windmill above a nearby quarry and serves as guide and guardian to the cha~teau's silhouettes of stone. "Bouer is the last slave of the Marquis de Sade," says Gilles, "and I'm the last slave of Bouer."
"Monsieur Bouer has two loves in his life," Gilles says. "His wife and his mistress. You've met his wife, and THIS," he sweeps an outstretched arm around the plateau, "is his mistress."
"Welcome to the chamber of experimentation," Gilles says, mounting low stairs beneath a surviving stone courtyard arch that once led to the Marquis' bedroom. Waving a hand beneath swirling gray skies, he sighs, "but now the chamber of experimentation exists only in your imagination." Around the grounds, crumbling walls outline salons once dressed with 18th-century refinement.
De Sade liked the intimacy of the cha~teau's small rooms, Gilles says. "Because I live up here," he adds, his menacing laugh stirring roosting pigeons from the tower rafters, "people think I'm a reincarnation of de Sade. Hand to God I'm not!"
He has however, witnessed from time to time an ungodly number of acts he describes as "stranger than strange." Frequently, people arrive with their own fancied notions ranging from nude group photo sessions, overnight campouts, se'ances and dress-up parties to other activities he categorizes only as "tre`s bizarre."
"There is still great charm in the Sade name," he says.
Drawn by legend, thousands ascend the rocky aerie each year to wander restored chambers and walls chinked with yarrow grass and marjoram. Their heels click on exposed bits of terra cotta courtyard tile. They drop business cards in the cha~teau cistern imagining, Bouer surmises, "de Sade will be aware of their visit that way.
"All kinds of people come to the castle," he says. "People interested in sadism as a philosophy -- and as a way of life. In the beginning you saw many homosexuals at the cha~teau ruins. Lacoste was a holy land of homosexualism. You saw men in painted nails and pink pajamas running around the castle. They all thought I was a disciple of sadism, but I'm not. I fell in love with the castle. Our friendship," he stresses, "is limited to that very precise point. For me, Sade is only a moment in the castle's history." Opposition still comes from provincial Provenc al neighbors, who undervalue the King of Kinks' free-spirited reputation. "In the village, some think de Sade was just a pistachia, a playboy," he says, "just a man very fond of women. In the beginning, they thought I was mad ... now, they think I'm very clever." Bouer has converted the cha~teau quarry into a profitable, spanking new convention facility. Cha~teau work also enjoys government support amounting to 100,000 francs ($18,000 U.S.) annually.
"Working at it is such great pleasure I don't even think about it ending. I still climb scaffolds without ladders because it saves time. When you're older you need to save as much time as possible. It'll take 150 years or perhaps even more" to finish the job, he says, "but I'm in no hurry ... I have eternity."
Sadisms dominate the landscape in this corner of France: three area cha~teau ruins and a sedate de Sade family museum. None, however, has Lacoste's dark attraction ("A cha~teau not in ruins," shrugs Bouer, "holds no mystery") or its debauched reputation.
De Sade's residence here lasted "from 1774 to 1778, a very important period of his life and work," Bouer says. A half-century study has convinced him Lacoste was a model for Cha~teau Silling, centerpiece of de Sade's "120 Days of Sodom," embracing his "to have and have more" philosophy.
"Silling is supposed to be in the German Black Forest, but details de Sade gives concerning paintings, furniture and locations are actually of Lacoste," Bouer says. There is mention of "two little girls from Lyons and Vienne, who were taken in by Madame de Sade to darn socks. These are local girls from neighboring villages. Only our local history teaches us they didn't darn any socks ... "
In his letters, de Sade referred to Lacoste as "the capital of my estates," Bouer says. "He was really in love with the landscape, cha~teau and village, though he hated the inhabitants."
They, it seems, returned the sentiment, plundering (and, some believe, torching) the cha~teau during the French Revolution. Bouer's doings at the ruins have rekindled this enmity among some villagers, who appear more than distressed at the notion of their community winning fame as a one-time capital of whips and chains. Several of them suggested an alternative fate for the brooding ruins on the hill -- turning them into a scenic trailer park.