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Wednesday, May 30, 2001
The ecstasy and the agony
The face of a beautiful woman appears in intense close-up, her fair skin offset by the clear blue sky behind her. The faint sighs of her soft, heavy breath are amplified erotically on the soundtrack. Her eyes open and shut lazily, her muscles going limp as she seems ready to swoon in ecstasy -- or so we think.
Actually, it's pure fear. The camera pulls back to reveal a beefy man in a black executioner's hood; he places the young woman's head on a guillotine, its blade raised and poised. It's the Terror of Paris in 1794, and the view we share is that of the Marquis de Sade, watching from his jail cell as the French aristocracy are beheaded one by one.
This is the magnificent opening shot of "Quills," director Philip Kaufman's black comedy-cum-thriller loosely based on the last days of Sade. It instantly catches us off guard, introducing us to Sade's perverted gaze even as we are made complicit in it. But while this shot establishes the Marquis' well-known taste for pain and pleasure in tandem ("How easily, dear reader, one changes from predator to prey," he hisses in voice-over as the blade drops), it also drops us right into the milieu of violent retribution from which Sade's writing emerged.
In real life, the Marquis witnessed literally thousands of executions (including that of Marie Antoinette) held in front of baying mobs in the name of "justice." It is impossible to consider Sade's notorious writings -- books like "Justine," "Juliette" and "100 Days of Sodom," full of taboo-busting sex, rape and murder -- without also considering this context, a society whose sense of morality was far too inconsistent and hypocritical for the Marquis to respect.
"Quills" takes this contradiction and runs with it. Working in close collaboration with author Doug Wright on this adaptation of his award-winning play, Kaufman ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "Henry and June") takes us into the mental asylum of Charenton, where Sade was incarcerated on Napoleon's orders and where he was to produce some of his most spectacularly depraved works. "Quills" is not so much a stodgy biopic as a film made in the spirit of Sade, with the Marquis himself as a character. (Imagine a darker, kinkier "Shakespeare in Love.")
With Geoffrey Rush in the lead, Kaufman gives us a rather campy take on the Marquis, presenting him as the John Waters of the 18th century, a natural iconoclast whose fundamental impulse is to offend. Proffering some wine to a straitlaced priest, he sneers that "conversation, like certain parts of the anatomy, is best when lubricated."
Rush is nothing short of incendiary, breathing fire into the Marquis' savage wit and arrogance. But he also reveals a man who is persecuted -- for his art! -- and very much alone.
Although imprisoned for his obscene writings, Sade continues to smuggle his works out to a publisher through the assistance of a laundry maid named Madeleine (Kate Winslet). The monk running the monastery, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), is a classic liberal humanist, believing that writing is purgative therapy for his temperamental prisoner.
But when Sade's books become the scandal of all Paris, Napoleon sends in Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a self-righteous moralist who uses "scientific" techniques (i.e., torture) to get his patients to see the error of their ways. The doctor orders Coulmier to seize Sade's quills (an event that actually took place), and thus begins a battle of wills in which the Marquis comes up with ever more devious ways to continue writing: in wine, in blood, even in his own excrement.
While he's too diffident to show it, it's obvious that Sade has a soft spot for Madeleine and, to a lesser extent, Coulmier, the two of whom he hopes to bring together. Phoenix's dark eyes and beaded brow lend themselves well to a tortured conscience, wrestling with religion and desire; Winslet -- in yet another adventurous, post-"Titanic" role -- embodies the healthy response to pornography, seeing it merely as bawdy entertainment; she's neither obsessed with nor enraged by it.
In this sense, "Quills" is very much a film about censorship vs. freedom of expression and art vs. pornography, with eerie parallels to today's debates. Intentionally so, as Wright wrote this play partially in response to the Robert Mapplethorpe/Jesse Helms uproar in the U.S. over obscenity in art. The moral hypocrisy of a man like Helms is clearly reflected in Royer-Collard, whom Caine plays with a chilling certainty.
What is truly striking about "Quills" is the probing, intellectually honest way in which it approaches the questions surrounding transgressive art, neither condemning Sade nor excusing him. (Although it finally settles on a grudging admiration for his integrity.)
"Quills" insists on two truths that don't reconcile easily: That violently sexual art can serve as a healthy catharsis for some and an unhealthy urge to act for others. Rather than give us easy answers, this outrageous little land mine of a film just blows up in our faces, and leaves it for us to sort out.