there be a more deliciously sinister, thematically rich historical figure
than the Marquis de Sade? The notoriously erotic author, playwright, and
18th century social gadfly has been the inspiration for dozens of books,
biographies, and plays, each one eager to spin their own version of the
man and his legacy. Playwright Doug Wright has recently penned his own award-winning
version of the Marquis, and director Phillip Kaufman has now turned Wright's
effort, QUILLS, into a fascinating, delectable exploration of the age-old
battle between censorship and creativity.
De Sade was, of course, a genius or a heathen, depending upon your feelings about sexuality and repression. During a tumultuous period in French history, de Sade wrote erotic stories that were pilloried by the government even as they became sought-after bestsellers. Beneath the scandalous tales of sex in its many, twisted variations, De Sade was making a simple argument -- that repression is more dangerous than expression, and that sex, as titillating as it may be, is hardly a danger to social morality or structure.
In Wright's screenplay, this argument about the dangers of censorship is brought front and center. The magic of QUILLS, however, is that it is much, much more than a political tract -- indeed, it is a mesmerizingly told tale, a sordid pleasure worthy of de Sade himself. Sure, once can find allegories in the material if one looks hard enough -- Mapplethorpe, McCarthyism, or Blitzstein come immediately to mind -- but QUILLS succeeds on its own merits. It's a great film not because of its message, but because the message is told with such marvelous flair.
After a brief prologue in Paris, the film moves to its central location, the insane asylum at Charenton. It is here that the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush), having roused the ire of the French Government (and in this version, Napoleon himself), has been placed, although he routinely seems the sanest person in the place. The asylum is under the care of the Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a priest who practices progressive techniques with his charges. He allows the Marquis to write his tales down, hoping that it will purge him of the demons within. Their relationship, almost friendly and fraternal at the beginning, is one that will be tested by both men.
As the Marquis' most infamous tale, JUSTINE, becomes a cause celebre in France, the embarrassed government sends in an overseer to Charenton, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a brutish disciplinarian whose torturous techniques are anathema to the young, idealistic Abbe. When de Sade continues to sneak his stories out of the asylum via a sympathetic chambermaid (Kate Winslet), the stage is set for a showdown between the Marquis and the Doctor, between perceived good and perceived evil, and between the free expression of ideas and the need to 'protect' people from sexual thoughts.
Philip Kaufman implements a lush, rich palette for his well-paced film. He correctly realizes that Wright's script calls for performers of exceptional talents, and he does not disappoint. It is hard to imagine a more perfect Marquis de Sade than Geoffrey Rush, a smirking, unapologetically horny master of his domain. The Oscar-winning performer, whose best work comes when playing men pushed past their limits (SHINE), is infectious in his lewdness...audiences will giggle along with the Marquis as he invents his naughty, but undeniably entertaining, tales. But it is in the latter half of the film, when de Sade is revealed as the artist he pretends not to be, that Rush truly shines. His struggles to find new, desperate ways to express himself are simply remarkable.
Joaquin Phoenix, as the conflicted Abbe, gives the best performance of his career in QUILLS. Reaching new depths within himself, Phoenix ably portrays the forces at war inside this noble young man -- a war that ends with dire consequences.
Kate Winslet brings great fun to the proceedings, illuminating each scene with much-needed light and energy. She is a bundle of unrestrained emotion, finding, through the writings of the Marquis, that her own dreams are possible.
Michael Caine is the weakest actor in the ensemble, but perhaps he suffers by comparison...in a film this good, someone has to be less than perfect. However, the contradictions within the Doctor are deep -- he often punishes the Marquis for writing things that he does himself with his new teenage bride. Caine doesn't seem to reach all the way to the bottom of his character, settling for merely good, not great, work.
Any film that argues this passionately for both creative expression and sexual liberty is bound to find opponents in certain quarters. However, any viewer, conservative or liberal, should really recognize this film for its merits. It introduces the idea that the cure may be more costly than the illness -- an important idea in this new century, where sexual education programs are being taken away from students across America.
But more importantly, QUILLS is, itself, a testament to the power of artistry. Whether people agree about sexuality's place in society or not, they should all certainly appreciate the thoughtfulness, the originality, and the creative mastery that is QUILLS.
- Gabriel Shanks
|Review text copyright © 2001 Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.|