Laura Clifford Robin Clifford
An aristocrat during the French Revolution who spent over half his life in prison, the Marquis de Sade, whose actions and literary works resulted in the coining of the word 'sadism,' has been praised by some as a genius and vilified by others as a pornographer. Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush ("Shine") stars as the Marquis during his later years spent in the Charenton insane asylum supported by his wife, befriended by the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, "Gladiator"), bedevilled by Napoleon's emissary Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) and in love with a teenage laundress (Kate Winslett).
Doug Wright has adapted his own off-Broadway play and together with director Philip Kaufman, ("The Right Stuff," "Henry and June") explores the nature of the artist and the effects of repression in "Quills."
The art of writing isn't the most visual one, yet Kaufman, who tackled writers before in "Henry and June," succeeds with his provoking film "Quills." Maybe its because he's chosen authors of controversial works laden with sex, but here, at least, his film works because it gets his audience thinking - does the reading of De Sade's books cause humans to behave badly or does the censorship of his work create the evil atmosphere?
Kaufman startles us right at the onset of his film. As the Marquis tells the tale of a noblewoman with a taste for pain, we see that woman responding to the hands and kiss of her lover. Slowly, we realize that that man is an executioner and that we are seeing a woman at the guillotine just as De Sade is, gazing out of his prison window. (The guillotine really was moved behind a jail when the Parisians began complaining about the smell.)
De Sade, who was arrested for sodomy and kidnapping before his writing landed him in trouble, spent his last years in an insane asylum because his wife's family preferred that to prison. He had a well furnished room, dined well, put on theatrical productions and was visitted by the Abbe Coulmier. However, when his most notorious novel, 'Justine,' (smuggled out by laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet) in this film) made its way into the hands of Napoleon, Antoine Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), an alienist, was sent to observe the asylum and its most notorious inmate. When De Sade's quills and ink were taken away, he resorts to chicken bones and red wine and later to his own body.
Wright plays with historical fact in that Coulmier was really a four foot tall hunchback and little is known of the real Magdeleine except that she visitted the Marquis. Here a love triangle is created and it's an effective device because it shows that good (Madeleine) can be exposed to evil and remain untouched yet evil (De Sade's writings) is inherent in all men (Coulmier). The film's climatic tragedy, where De Sade tells a new story to Madeleine like a game of telephone, illustrates that Royer-Collard's repressive actions have set the stage for disaster.
Rush revels in naughtily tweaking the saintly Abbe and exposing the self-righteous Royer-Collard but he can become scary, allowing darkness to wash over his face, even as we're laughing at his latest quip. It's a charged performance. Winslet is delicious as the curious laundry girl. She does devilishly juicy readings of De Sade's work (invented for the film) yet has an apple cheeked purity about her. Phoenix, who's shaping into a really good actor, gradually changes from a good and innocent Abbe to a tormented man wrestling with lust. Caine, beautifully introduced by Kaufman from behind the head of a man being tortured in a dunking machine, turns in a bland performance as the brutal doctor.
Support includes Amelia Warner ("Mansfield Park") as Royer-Collards' child bride, whose sexuality is unleashed by reading the forbidden De Sade, but with another man. She's a pretty girl, but this subplot does little for the film other than to gratify by seeing Royer-Collard cuckholded. Rush' wife, stage actress Jane Menelaus, plays De Sade's wife and makes us feel her character's frustration. Michael Jenn ("The Messenger"), Danny Babington, George Yiasoumi "Elizabeth," and Stephen Marcus ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels") all create unique inmates. The great Billie Whitelaw has been given little to work with as the blind mother of Madeleine.
The film feels claustrophobic, as the imprisonment of a theatrical writer should, although the monochromatic palette is somewhat dull. Costume (Jacqueline West, "Pulp Fiction") is notable from the sexy draping of the Abbe's robes to the buxom milkmaid look given to Madeleine.
While "Quills" is provocative, relatively little sex and nudity are shown. "Quills" is a movie about words and ideas that will make you think.
During the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, the infamous Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) narrowly avoided an appointment with Madame Guillotine. Instead of losing his head, the randy aristocrat was given over to the care of Abbe Coulmier (Joaquim Phoenix), the head of the Charenton Asylum for the Insane. The Marquis, whose writings were sexually inflammatory, produced some of his most notorious works with the unwitting help of the Abbe and the more than willing help of Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a smart, inquisitive laundress at the asylum in director Philip Kaufman's "Quills."
Philip Kaufman doesn't make a lot of movies. He certainly is not known for his ability to "crank out" films on a quick and regular basis. Instead, the helmer provides quality, and sometimes groundbreaking work, like the paean to America's space program, "The Right Stuff," and his controversial, NC-17 (the very first movie rated as such) "Henry & June." Now, he adapts the play by Doug Wright (who also wrote the screenplay) on the last, imprisoned years of one of the most famous authors and men of his time.
Today, the word sadism - which refers to sexual pleasure derived from pain - draws a picture in our minds of a man who has forsaken propriety for the satiation of his carnal and prurient pleasures. The Marquis de Sade may have epitomized the definition of the word that bears his name, but scripter Wright takes us down a very different path in his examination of a man who, at the very basis of he accomplished, was the devout proponent for the freedom of speech and artistic creativity.
We first meet Sade as the guillotine is falling on those hapless folks who were on the wrong side of the Revolution. The story begins with the Marquis telling what sounds like a bawdy story of a comely young woman only to have the action change from lustiness to carnage as the razor sharp blade of the guillotine snuffs out her life. It's a shocking opening to a film that proceeds to tell us about the man, Sade, who is compelled to tell his tales in a way that both shocks and titillates the reader. His unwillingness to compromise his work causes his imprisonment (in relative luxury) by the leaders of the revolt. His brief stint of freedom, following the Revolution, is ended when he is committed to the Charenton Asylum by the Emperor Napoleon for publishing erotic novels.
Wright's screenplay follows the last years of Sade as the man subverts the system that imprisons him by secretly spiriting new manuscripts to his publishers with the help of Madeleine, the laundress. Sade and Madeleine form a chaste, though laden with sexuality, relationship that allows the confined aristocrat a distraction from his confinement. Madeleine proves to be extraordinarily intelligent, learning to read and write from the Abbe, and using her education to read Sade's 'scripts to the unwashed masses working at the asylum. (Madeleine is kind of like an 18th century book on tape.) With her help, and the unknowing cooperation of the naive Abbe, one of Sade's most notorious works, Justine, hits the streets, eventually falling into the hands of Napoleon, who "leafed through the most abominable book that a depraved imagination ever conceived."
The Emperor's less than kindly attention results in the assignment of Dr. Antoine Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to act as "advisor" to the Abbe. The doctor's methods of treatment for "psychiatric" patients crosses the border to the barbaric, making the viewer wonder who the true sadist is. During this period, the Abbe is ordered to curb the work coming from Sade's cell and the cleric begins by removing all the author's quills (hence, the title), ink and parchment. Not one to be easily stymied in his creativity, Sade uses chicken bones and red wine as his writing implements and his sheets as paper to get his stories out to Madeleine. When even these meager tools removed, the resourceful Marquis uses bits of broken glass as pens, his blood for ink and his very clothes for parchment. Besides the obvious free speech theme of the story, you also get the moral that you can't keep a good man down.
The acting amongst the three principles - Rush, Winslet and Phoenix - is superb. There is a triangle of sorts but in a different way than one would expect. Sade and Madeleine have a teacher/student relationship through most of the film. It's not that the randy-minded marquis wouldn't like to jump the pretty laundress's bones, he respects her too much to insult her or drive her away. Madeleine and the Abbe also have a flirtatious relationship, but, again, one that remains chaste through to the tragic end. Sade and Abbe Coulmier strike up a long-term friendship with the enlightened priest allowing Sade to oversee Charenton's theater as a form of therapy. Each of the actors puts a convincing spin on their perfs with Rush standing tallest. Caine's Royer-Collard is the symbol of the oppression of free expression and isn't allowed beyond the symbolic nature of the character. The members of the asylum provide an interesting, sometimes bizarre, backdrop.
The claustrophobic feel of the play is carried to the screen and is effective in showing the imprisonment of the remarkable marquis. I found it to be a bit too constrained, not translating to the big screen as well as other plays turned screenplays, like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." But, this is a minor complaint on a uniformly solid work.
Tech credits are exemplary with production designer Martin Childs lending his Oscar-winning talents in creating the Marquis's prison as it deteriorates from comfortable chambers to a bare prison cell. Costuming, by Jacqueline West, isn't pretty - it does take place in an insane asylum, after all - but it certainly fits the tone and period of the story. Newcomer to American film, lenser Rogier Stoffers, captures the claustrophobic feel of Sade's prison.
Philip Kaufman may not come out with a film but once every several years, but they are worth waiting for. The quality work in "Quills" is no exception and worth the effort. You won't get big, flash F/X and explosions or lines like "I'll be back," but you will get a thought provoking yarn about a man whose name is in the dictionary. How many people can you say that about. I give it a B+.
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