“I fail to understand how it happened that this little rascal did not win the palm,” said he, “for devil take me if in all the world there exists a finer ass than this one here.”
If you’re like me — not strongly read in classic literature — you’re perhaps — like me — not overly familiar first-hand with the work of Donatien-Alphonse-Francois de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade. Even college literature classes did not inform me of more than the sketchiest details: he was French, wrote the most lurid and pornographic literature thought possible, and was thought a criminal for his words. Of course now some 300 years have passed. Fiction of equivalent explicitness but inequivalent eloquence can be found in magazines, Harlequin novels, or fan fiction on the Internet based on “Gilligan’s Island.”
Quills is certainly not the first movie about Sade, either his life or featuring him as a character. He’s been played by actors as divergent as Klaus Kinski, Keir Dullea (best known for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001), and horror icon Robert Englund (in Tobe Hooper’s Night Terrors). Most ignominious of all, he appeared in Bruce Campbell’s schlocky TV show, “Jack Of All Trades.” Quills is saddled with the burden of years of pictures based on the man, and yet is charged to find a unique and compelling story to tell. It does not need this court to acquit it, for it does so admirably.
The Marquis, played by Geoffrey Rush (Oscar winner for Shine), is incarcerated in Charenton asylum for his writing. His warden is priest Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator, To Die For), a kind man who encourages his charges to exorcise their mental anguishes through artistic endeavors. For Sade, that catharsis is his writing, but the Abbe never meant for it to be disseminated for public consumption, and yet it finds its way out of the prison for publication. The Marquis is aided by a scullery maid, Madeline (Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures, Titanic), who smuggles his manuscripts out with his bedsheets. His books attract the attention of Napoleon, who dispatches Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine, The Man Who Would Be King, The Cider House Rules). Royer-Collard is known for his barbaric therapy, and it is hoped he can silence the Marquis without killing him outright.
Quills is based on a stage play by Doug Wright, who also penned the screenplay. While it is based on the life of the Marquis de Sade and the actual people surrounding him, it takes liberties with the facts; it is history “tarted up a bit.” It’s actually rather charitable to say it takes liberties, for very little of what you see bears any resemblance to actual events. At the stage in Sade’s life portrayed in the film, he was a corpulent man in his 60s or 70s, not the lithe 49-year-old figure of Geoffrey Rush. He was incarcerated at Charenton on two separate occasions, but spent very few of his 27 years in prison at that facility. Justine, a book shown in the film, actually was published while he was out of prison for a brief period. Plus, it is doubtful he had that many extravagant possessions while in prison, for he had been penniless for some years because of his numerous youthful indiscretions and because his well-off wife had left him some years before his death. All of that is just from a timeline of his life I found on the Internet. In the commentary, Wright remarks on several other liberties he and the other filmmakers took. The real Abbe de Coulmier purportedly was a four-foot tall hunchback, which in no way matches Joaquin Phoenix. The Marquis did indeed have an affair with Madeline, the chambermaid played by Kate Winslet, even though they have a chaste relationship in the movie. But, all of this is irrelevant to the movie itself. If you want history, you should read a book. Movies are about entertainment, and does Quills fulfill in that department?
Truck stop coffee. That’s what Quills is like. It’s like bitter, week-old coffee to which cream and sugar must be added in copious quantities to be palatable. It takes the bitterest, least crowd-pleasing elements of film — dry dialogue, the stage-bound nature of a play, costume drama stuffiness, historical accuracy — and lightens them with wit and charming actors. If this were simply the story, set in the era of corsets and powdered wigs, of a lecherous old man compelled to write his most lurid sexual fantasies whilst locked in a madhouse, it would likely bore the average film watcher to tears, and maybe creep them out a bit. But it’s simply not that kind of movie. It has the milieu of Dangerous Liaisons, the poignancy of Fight Club, and the clever wit of a Woody Allen sex comedy.
While Doug Wright’s script gives Quills its literate yet lighthearted appeal, its charm comes from the performances, which all around are remarkable. Geoffrey Rush plays the Marquis with the verve he brought to Shakespeare In Love, Mystery Men, and House On Haunted Hill, tempered by the refinement of Elizabeth and Les Misérables. He is passionate about his craft and steadfast in his humanist beliefs, but madness is just under the surface, bubbling up in times of desperation. As his foil, Joaquin Phoenix is superb as the Abbe. Honestly, I cannot imagine how the Academy would have deigned to nominate him for Best Supporting Actor for his hammy role in Gladiator if they had seen Quills. No “Am I not merciful?” histrionics here. This is a somber, thoughtful role, one that leads him from piety to doubt to lust to madness, and every step of the way Phoenix makes us believe in him. Michael Caine could have played Royer-Collard as a villainous fop. In his top hat and cape, I am reminded of Stephen Rea’s French actor/vampire in Interview With The Vampire. Despite the opportunity to play the role in that over the top fashion, Caine opts instead for alternating snake oil charm and quiet menace. Kate Winslet, unfortunately, is not given as much screen time, as Madeline is a supporting character, albeit one that is indispensable to the plot. Madeline doesn’t bring out any shades in Kate that we haven’t seen already in her other roles, but that’s hardly a complaint, as she is a talented and beautiful actress who fits right in as the unassuming, kinky, charming servant girl. (As an aside, I’ll share a piece of trivia that never ceases to amaze me. Kate’s debut film was Heavenly Creatures, based on the true story of two girls in New Zealand in the 1950s, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, who murdered Pauline’s mother. Juliet Hulme, the girl played by Kate Winslet, later published, and continues to publish, murder mysteries under the pen name Anne Perry.)
Want to know a secret? I’ve only seen one other film directed by Philip Kaufman, and it’s probably his weakest one — Rising Sun. It’s films like Quills that make me realize, painfully so, that there are numerous gaping holes in my film viewing. Kaufman has not been a prolific filmmaker; he has directed 11 films in 35 years, and Quills was his first since 1993’s Rising Sun. He is probably best known for the three films he directed between 1983 and 1990: The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Henry and June. The latter is remarkable only for the fact that it prompted the MPAA to create the NC-17 rating, which was supposed to replace the X rating for films of artistic merit with adult content. The controversy over the rating system continues unabated.
Likewise, Quills itself tackles another controversial topic du jour: violence in art. Today, song lyrics and films are blamed for the violence in society. Society feared that the violence and “depravity” in the works of the Marquis de Sade would incite similar behavior. In Quills, that debate is embodied in a hulking, mentally handicapped prisoner who is infatuated with Madeline. During a performance of a sexually suggestive play written by the Marquis, the prisoner attacks and attempts to rape Madeline. The struggle interrupts the performance, and instantly the Marquis is blamed for the man’s aberrant behavior. During the climax of the movie, this same prisoner takes advantage of a chaotic fire in the asylum to attack Madeline again, this time with more dire results. Once more, the Marquis is blamed. Can violent art indeed inspire violence, or does it simply provoke action in those already inclined to violence? There’s no possible way the film or I can solve that dilemma.
Though not labeled a “special edition,” Fox nonetheless produced an admirable disc for Quills worthy of addition to your collection. The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. From the beginning, I was extremely impressed with the quality of the transfer. It has a sharp, detailed, three-dimensional, film-like appearance. Colors are difficult to judge, as it was filmed with an unnatural palette. It’s not as unrealistic (or hyperrealistic) as Fight Club or Three Kings, but it appears to have been heavily filtered to give a patina to the image that makes it appear slightly dark, greenish, and old-fashioned. It suits the movie quite well. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The rears are used infrequently for music cues or incidentals, but rarely for anything related to the main action. After all, it’s a drama/comedy, and by nature they are typically forward-centric. Fidelity is excellent.
For supplements, we get a commentary by writer Doug Wright, three “revealing” featurettes (gotta love those box art copywriters), a still gallery, the theatrical trailer, and television spots. The commentary is well worth your attention, as Wright is very informative both on the writing of the play and its adaptation to the screen, as well as offering tidbits about the historical events. It is a lively track, punctuated only by infrequent pauses to admire the dialogue (and considering it’s his first screenplay and based on his play, I’ll forgive him). The featurettes are rather brief, but offer small glimpses into the production. The still gallery gives us closer looks at some of the props used in the film, as a great deal of care and attention went into their manufacture.
A user at the Internet Movie Database comments that Quills is “excruciatingly close to brilliance.” I’ll concur. Considering this is the man who inspired the word “sadism,” the movie is a little too cheerful. Some issues with the rights to the English translations of Sade’s works precluded their use in the film, and Wright’s words in Sade’s style lack his eloquent yet pointed and brutal eroticism. It’s as if the film plays too close to the center, yet at the same time is itching to be edgy and “out there.” As it is, it’s the sort of film made to please middle America, yet it may prove too disturbing to suit their demands for mediocrity. Hopefully the packaging, with Kate Winslet’s heaving bosoms and Geoffrey Rush’s lusty eyes, will be enough to sucker them into a rental.
Now, I don’t want you to think of this as a complaint or a “rebuttal”; I merely needed somewhere to put it. Quills skates rather close to the NC-17 line itself, and had it been made with no-name actors by a studio of less prestige than Fox, I think it would have earned itself the kiss of death rating. Overall, it’s certainly less explicit that it could have been, but it does include several scenes that make you wonder if Fox had to slip the ratings board a check under the table to secure the R rating. You get several quick full-frontal looks at Geoffrey Rush. A very vigorous male-female-male threesome gets some screentime. There’s even a scene that borders on necrophilia. And the dialogue, even if it is cleaner than Sade’s own prose, would make even the eponymous clerks of Clerks blush. (As you might recall, the MPAA wanted to give Clerks an NC-17 rating for its sexual dialogue, but relented when Miramax called in a high-powered lawyer, Alan Dershowitz if memory serves correctly.) Still, I stand by my assertion that it should decide what it wants to be: outright debauchery or toned-down, recommend-it-to-your-parents fare.
If you anticipate risqué banter and some disturbing scenes in the midst of a lighthearted historical drama, you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t expect a historically accurate portrayal of the Marquis de Sade or an in-depth look at his erotic works. A strong script, able direction, and a stellar cast who underplay their roles make it very worthy of at least a rental. It is the sort of film that lends itself to and benefits from repeat viewings — I watched it three times over the course of a weekend — so I’d consider it worthy of purchase as well.