Sunday, July 29, 2007

Quills -- Examining the Marquis De Sade

Quills is a fascinating story about the infamous French aristocrat, the Marquis de Sade. More historical fiction than biography, Quills takes place in an insane asylum where Sade was banished after spending several decades in prison for sexually assaulting a number of prostitutes, almost poisoning them with Spanish Fly, beating and terrorizing a young beggar girl and deflowering his sister-in-law; the latter so infuriated his mother-in-law that she had him arrested.

Inside the madhouse, the Marquis, brilliantly played by Geoffrey Rush, was given permission to write by the liberal minded Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), but was forbidden to publish. Where there's a will, there is invariably a way and the Marquis found such a way in Madeleine, a young laundry maid, played by the lovely Kate Winslet, who has been remarkably good in every movie I've ever seen her in. Thus, de Sade persuades the young woman to pass his writing to an outsider who manages to publish them, evoking fury from the Emperor Napoleon and wild cries of outrage, as well as titillation, from the masses. When the abbé discovers that the Marquis has broken his rule, he takes away his mighty quill but the determined de Sade continues to write, using wine, blood and even his own feces. And he must then face the wrath of the cold and hypocritical Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who is brought in to keep the Marquis in check.

At first glance, Quills appears to be a movie about censorship and the importance of maintaining the right to free speech. It tends to glorify the Marquis de Sade; although we do experience him as vulgar, we are sympathetic to his plight. The drums of the American Civil Liberties Union can be heard quite distinctly. What isn't emphasized in the movie is that de Sade was more than simply pornographic or shocking -- those who've read his original works (I read both Justine and something else by him when I was in my early 20s) know that he was outrageously cruel and went way beyond advocating rough porn like Larry Flynt in Hustler magazine. De Sade enjoyed torture, was completely amoral and was very much a nihilist.

Quills is a morality play since the movie makes it very clear that the Marquis' "incendiary" writings had a profound effect on other inmates and readers. This gives the movie its depth because we're asked to decide which is more important -- free speech or the potential for inflammatory material to cause grave danger by provoking acts of great malice. And we must acknowledge that for many people, particularly from the repressed era of the 18th century, de Sade's writings were liberating.

Cinematography, costumes and acting are all excellent. Joaquin Phoenix does a passionate and convincing job of playing the young Coulmier, who is tormented by his desire for the laundry maiden and Rush steals the stage as the nasty Marquis who is also entranced with Madeleine.

What is not entirely up to snuff -- no pun intended -- in Quills, is its accuracy. Screenwriter Doug Wright portrays the abbé as young, idealistic and handsome whereas in real life, according to movie reviewer Tom Holmberg, he was a gnome in his 60s, with a hunchback and gnarled legs. De Sade is depicted as having a loving feeling towards Madeleine, which saves him from being a one dimensional, frozen hearted, sex fiend, but in reality, the Marquis bragged about sodomizing the teenaged Madeleine -- probably not something that would have gone over too well with a Hollywood audience.

Aside from that, and some moments of parody that lost their authenticity for me, Quills is an ambitious, well-done movie that posed philosophical questions that stayed with me long after I finished watching.


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