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Quills***

I have prefaced this review of Quills with a few remarks about its subject, the Marquis de Sade. To go directly to the review click here

Will the "real" Marquis de Sade please stand up? No portrait of the most notorious philosophe in the French Enlightenment has come down to us--surprising for an eighteenth century aristocrat--although Max Ernst created an imaginary portrait in tribute to Sade that has often been reproduced in lieu of a contemporary one. The sole monument of Sade's ever having lived is the copious body of writing he left behind--several novels in multiple volumes, plays, the dialogue Philosophy in the Boudoir, and a considerable body of correspondence. (The Œuvres complètes in the edition published by J.-J. Pauvert runs to some thirty-one odd volumes.) Otherwise, Sade might as well have been a character out of a science fiction story, a being composed of anti-matter who suddenly manifested himself one day in 1740 and disappeared just as abruptly some seventy-four years later.

I have quite intentionally characterized Sade as a philosophe rather than as a pornographer or even a writer, since all the evidence suggests that is how he primarily saw himself. Sade used the pornographic genre--very much in demand during the French Revolution--not as an end in and of itself, but as a lure to gain an audience for his theories. Needless to say, to the extent that readers were sexually aroused by what they read, their excitation furnished an important practical verification of his speculations--a point not to be disdained by any self-respecting thinker of the period. But revolution and not titillation was the aim of the Marquis, who wanted to complete in the realm of thought what the events 1789 had begun in the realm of politics and who inserted into Philosophy in the Boudoir a pamphlet entitled "Frenchmen, Another Effort  if You Would be Republicans." No wonder Napoleon wanted an embarrassing reminder of the Jacobin heyday of the Revolution like Sade locked up in a madhouse. 

Moreover, Sade in pursuing this goal could tap into one of the most salient characteristics of the eighteenth century social novel: its penchant for moralizing. Readers of the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Henry Fielding were accustomed to didactic digressions; Sade simply turned the convention upside down and replaced the edifying discourses of these authors with libertine eulogies to vice and criminality. There is hardly a one of Sade's elaborately choreographed tableaux of debauchery that does not serve to provide the subject for an eloquent discourse supplied by a speaker who serves as a mouthpiece for the author's idiosyncratic blend of rigorously reasoned materialism and equally intransigent atheism.

No one who ventures ever so slightly into Sade's book-length works would suffer from the delusion that the Marquis was a hedonist. The only pleasure that interested him was that which resulted from inflicting a maximum amount of pain on others. "Cruelty," announces Dolmancé in Philosophy in the Boudoir, "is nothing else than human energy that civilization has not yet corrupted: it is therefore a virtue and not a vice." In the novels, ordinary varieties of licentiousness  only serve to inflame the already volcanic passions of scélérats who find their sole sexual gratification in reducing their objects of desire to the status of slaves deprived of any will of their own. Partners--except those in crime--simply play no role in Sade's scenarios. 

It is hard to imagine what image, if any, of such a figure might exist in the collective consciousness of the American movie going public. For all I know, half the audience for Quills in this country may be under the impression that the protagonist is a remote ancestor of Marky Mark. Philip Kaufman, filming a play adapted to the screen by its author, Doug Wright, has used the known circumstances of the Marquis' latter days--as did Peter Weiss in his famous play from the 1960s, The Assassination and Persecution of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade--as a launching pad for a fabulistic reflection on intellectual and artistic freedom of expression, making a more than ample use of poetic license in the process.

Quills opens stunningly, with what seems to be a dramatized incident from one of Sade's own fictions which turns out to be the execution of a young woman on the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. The action then skips ahead into the Napoleonic period when the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) has been interned at Charenton, an insane asylum outside of Paris. Under the relatively permissive tutelage of the young, naive Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), Sade writes his pornographic novels--most of which were in fact published in the 1790s when he was still free--and smuggles them to a publisher on the outside through the clandestine intercession of a helpful young washerwoman, Madeleine (Kate Winslet). However, when Justine becomes a bestseller in the streets of the capital and the scandal is brought to the attention of Bonaparte, the latter orders the older, hardened alienist Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to step in and put an end to Sade's literary effusions.

Caught between the unrelenting Royer-Collard and the equally insolent Sade, the Abbé finds himself compelled to take ever more drastic steps, particularly after the Marquis creates a public scandal by staging a lewd farce in the presence of Royer-Collard, ridiculing the doctor and exposing his recent marriage to a teenage girl he has dragged from a convent. When the Abbé tries depriving Sade of quills and ink, the writer uses wine to compose a text on his bedclothes; when the clergyman replies by stripping his cell, Sade uses his own blood to write on his clothes. Reduced to a state of nudity after this last ploy, the frustrated writer resolves to dictate what is supposed to be his final creation aloud to Madeleine. However, since she is restricted from going to his cell at night, Sade has to recite the story to an inmate in an adjoining cell, who in turn relays it to his neighbor, etc., until it reaches the ears of Madeleine.

Unfortunately, this scheme goes wildly awry when an over-excited inmate who has been serving as a link in this living chaîne signifiante torches his bedding, not only starting a conflagration but unleashing what amounts to a revolt by the asylum's residents. Up to this point, for approximately its first two-thirds, Quills has been an enjoyable and even witty black farce--the sequence of the dictation, with the Marquis' tale becoming progressively garbled as it is passed on from one speaker to the next, is one of the movie's real high points. But thereafter Kaufman's film irretrievably plunges into a pit of Gothicism more appropriate to a schlock horror production like Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill than to the literate drama of ideas Quills has been engaged in fabricating.

Outraged when Madeleine--for whom he nurses a more than charitable interest--is brutally killed during the riot, the Abbé fantasizes violating her corpse as it lies on a catafalque while tears of blood drip from the eyes of Christ on a crucifix. But worse is to come when Coulmier, who holds Sade personally responsible for this catastrophe, has the tongue of the Marquis surgically removed to permanently silence him. In a last gesture of defiance, Sade inscribes his farewell opus on the walls of a dungeon using his own excrement as ink, and then dies. The end finds Royer-Collard, who has set up a print shop in the asylum, turning a profit by reprinting Sade's works in a deluxe edition. The Abbé, in the meantime, has gone completely mad and occupies the Marquis' old cell, where he embarks on writing a pornographic fiction of his own.

The moral of this story, of course, is that in a sort of return of the Sadean repressed the villains are far more Sadean--and sadistic--than Sade himself . Dr. Royer-Collard does not hesitate to employ what are patently instruments of torture as a means of therapy and rapes his adolescent spouse on her wedding night. (In one of Quill's few "happy" moments, she takes her revenge by running off with a hunky young architect, after a reading of Justine awakens her to the facts of life.)  Even Coulmier, who commences as a somewhat equivocally altruistic figure, almost succumbs to the carnal charms of Madeleine and changes into a complete ogre by the end of Quills. By contrast, the movie presents Sade himself as a kind of Shavian advocatus diaboli who never harms a fly and is more interested in argument for the sake of argument than putting his imagined atrocities into practice.

In effect, Quills is falling back upon a piece of vulgarized Freudianism that has been in vogue since John Colton's Rain in the 1920s--and which most recently showed up in the story about the crazy next door neighbor in American Beauty. According to this idea, sadism--most often in movies the institutionalized sadism of puritanical, hypocritical authority figures such as the police or the professional military--is the perverted expression of repressed "natural" sexual desires. In my review of American Beauty I have said what I think about that film's use of this piece of moldy cheese left over from the hippie era. In the present context, I would just make two points. First, this is an idea Sigmund Freud would hardly ever have endorsed--at least in such a crass form. Later Freudian theory accorded a considerable role to the importance of  destructive--sado-masochistic--instincts in the human psyche, but even before that time Freud had presented sexuality as  polymorphously perverse. From a Freudian point of view, "natural" sexuality is no more than a narcissistically gratifying mirage.

But Sade would even less have endorsed such a premise. What the film wants to do is to arouse the moral outrage of the audience at the abuse of power by Napoleon, Royer-Collard, Coulmier and their ilk--to make viewers scream out, "J'accuse! These are the real sadists!" However, Sade would have scorned moral outrage. From the Marquis' point of view, anyone who had power and didn't abuse it was even more besotted than the wretched inmates of Charenton. Nor did Sade imagine for an instant that those in power would usually be so stupid as to reveal their true designs. Honesty was no more of a virtue for Sade than compassion or piety. If Sade loathed Napoleon, as he probably did, it would have been for the emperor's kowtowing to the church and for having compromised the state by using it for his own ends. (Very much in tune with the spirit of the times in this regard, Sade thought that the state should be an entity of reason, above the passions of individuals.)

For anyone who is not distracted by the considerable liberties Quills take with its subject, the film is highly imaginative and even quite entertaining before it starts to resemble an adaptation of Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk. Both Rush and Caine give extraordinarily effective performances in their respective roles, and even the obnoxious Joaquin Phoenix is better cast here than he was playing Commodus in Gladiator. The color cinematography by Rogier Stoffers is more straightforward than innovative, but Kaufman makes an interesting repeated use of the judas hole in the door to the Marquis' cell, with its rectangular proportions, to frame some of the scenes. No one is likely to get closer to the "real" Marquis de Sade as a result of watching this movie, but in its own way Quills is making a contribution to keeping the American cinema from turning to pablum--always more of an ever present danger than its being inundated with sex and violence.

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