QuillsBy Ealasaid Haas
"It's a fiction, not a moral treatise."
It's all very well for the Marquis de Sade to say that about his book Justine in the film "Quills," the film itself happens to be both - and the next time someone whimpers about Hollywood never making intelligent films anymore, I'm going to have to fight down a Sadean grin when I ask if they've seen "Quills." Because while the point of "Quills" revolves around morality, it manages not to preach, and provides enough fodder for two or three sides of the freedom of expression argument.
With the current furor over Eminem's Grammy nominations, the film is particularly timely. But Eminem has nothing on Sade.
"Quills" presents a fictionalized account of the last weeks of the Marquis de Sade. The Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) has been imprisoned for most of his life for one thing and another; if it's not his rather unpleasant habits, it's his even more unpleasant writing. At the time of the film, he is an unabashed old lech, shut up in Charenton asylum (rather than a jail) as a result of his wife's influence. There, he writes voraciously, composes and directs plays with his fellow inmates for a cast, flirts shamelessly with both Madeline, the laundrymaid (Kate Winslett) who smuggles his obscene writing to the outside world, and with Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who runs the asylum. Everything seems as pleasant as can be, until the Marquis' newest book, Justine, reaches the hands of Napoleon. The Emperor is enraged by the book's obscenity, and send Doctor Royer-Collard (a deliciously evil Michael Caine) to subdue or destroy the author.
The Marquis knows a fellow sadist when he sees one, and soon he and the doctor are locked in a battle of wills which cannot but end tragically.
And end tragically it does - with the death of an innocent, apparently as the direct result of the Marquis' writings. But the film begs the question: who is responsible? The author of such inflammatory prose, or those who did their best to silence him knowing full well that he would not be silenced?
For the Marquis, as he insists, cannot help but write. Take his quills, he will make his own from whatever is at hand. Deny him ink, he will use wine - or his own blood. Refuse him paper, and he uses his sheets, his clothes, the very walls.
Or is it anyone's fault? "Quills" provides enough ammunition to sustain an argument from any of several points of view, most of them directly opposed to one another. It is that which saves it from being merely a sermon on the dangers of inhibiting free speech.
As Sade, Rush gives a marvelously layered performance. At first glance, the infamous Marquis is simply a charming but somewhat unpleasant fellow (although his sadistic side is not demonstrated in the film, it is alluded to in succinct but graphic terms), but the viewer who refuses to be seduced by the Marquis' elegant manners will see him for what he is: a monstrously spoilt child, and a slightly mad one at that.
Winslett is luminous as Madeline, who allows the Marquis to hit on her provided he doesn't step out of line (and when he does, she lets him know in no uncertain terms). She is one of his biggest fans - the Abbé has been teaching her to read, and she shares the Marquis' prose with her fellow servants before sending it on to his publisher - and she presents one of the more eloquent defenses of people who like that sort of stuff. By identifying with the characters in his tales, by being wicked "on the page," she is, she says, able to be good in life.
Phoenix works hard to make his Abbé Coulmier stand up next to Winslett and Rush, and manages to hold his own. There are a few heavy-handed moments in his performance, but it is otherwise quite satisfactory.
This excellent cast is supported by superb sets and clothing and a soundtrack which supports, rather than overpowering, the dialog-driven scenes. And dialog-driven they are - one can sense that this was originally a play, and one which could be presented on a fairly simple stage, at that. The arguments between the Abbé and the Marquis about God and literature, Madeline's defense of her penchant for reading Sade's works, and, ultimately, the simplest summation of Sade's appeal in the film ("That's terrible!" says Madeline's mother, when the girl reads some of Sade's work to her, "well, go on!") are all words, and words about words. This is not a film for lovers of action, but lovers of words will be in paradise.
Where the film falls short is, oddly enough, in its production. The cast, script, and performances are excellent, but the surroundings make one wonder what director Phillip Kaufman was thinking. There are unnecessarily gory and bizarre images scattered through the otherwise beautiful and realistic film (Sade's well-worn and slightly dingy finery is a stroke of genius), and for no apparent reason. The audience this film is aiming for will only be annoyed, not impressed, by amputees in an infirmary. One gets the feeling Kaufman was trying too hard to make this a visceral experience. Those familiar with Sade's work will point out that while Justine is a recognizable title, the use of it as a sort of sex-ed piece (one character reads it and learns about the joys of sex from it) is inappropriate. The text of the book is filled with extreme sadism, and memorizing it would likely have made the inexperienced reader swear off sex forever. Scriptwriter Douglas Wright would have done better to use Philosophy in the Bedroom, which is an educational treatise in libertinism. Sade himself knew of its potential, and it was originally released with the epigraph, "mothers will make this volume mandatory reading for their daughters." That aside, however, the film is a masterpiece. By turns seductive, tender, frightening, romantic, horrifying, and witty, "Quills" is not a film for the illiterati, but for intelligent people in search of a film to make them think. Provided, of course, that those intelligent people are strong of stomach. Kaufman's injected unpleasantness requires quick hands to eyes or a stout heart - or both.