Quills

Director Philip Kaufman makes movies about people who want to (as one of his characters once put it) "alter the experiment": the James-Younger outlaw gang in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, the self-absorbed libertines of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, the Mercury astronauts with their cartoon machismo in The Right Stuff. In Quills Kaufman makes the Marquis de Sade a poster-child for the freedom of expression—the same marquis who spent nearly 30 years in prison for crimes that included rape, and whose writings retain their pornographic sting 200 years after their publication. At one point of the movie Sade appears as a living parchment, his ragged clothes ribboned with obscenities that he’s scrawled out in his own blood. “My writings live!” he crows, and his joy sparks a riot of exultation among his fellow inmates at the Charenton Asylum for the Insane. Quills extinguishes the distance between art and being, and treats the act of creation as a compulsive part of existence, as involuntary as breathing. It’s also plays out one of society’s most volatile scenarios—of what happens when human beings whose identities are rooted in their sexuality and creativity are confronted by the square outsider who insists that their bohemian game-playing must come to an end.

Adapted by Doug Wright from his Obie-winning play, Quills is a freewheeling interpretation of the marquis’ final years, when he was imprisoned at Charenton for publishing his obscene novels. A dissolute aristocrat and spoiled genius, Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is something like a celebrity within the asylum, even enjoying a two-room cell fitted out with comfortable furniture and a library. This generosity is mainly due to Charenton’s director, the liberal Abbe Coumier (Joaquin Phoenix), who time and again reaches out to the writer by appealing to his faith or reason. The unacknowledged wild card in the two men’s ongoing debate is their shared lust for Madeleine (Kate Winslet), the young laundress who spirits Sade’s manuscripts out of the asylum. Sade’s purple porno fantasies bring out the life in nearly everyone that encounters them—commoners read them aloud in the street, the asylum inmates feel each other up using the sound of his words as a metronome—and Madeleine is no exception, but for her the marquis’ works express the carnality she longs to enjoy with the young priest. (When Sade comes on to her, she adopts a fishwife’s demeanor and blunts his advances with an earthy sarcasm.) On his end, the abbe’s feelings for Madeleine are an insistent signpost that he’s taken the wrong path in life, a realization given an extra jolt by the marquis’ mocking epigrams.

When Sade’s novel Justine appears in Paris, it creates a social shock-wave that ripples all the way up to Napoleon, and the emperor dispatches Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to take control of the asylum and silence the troublesome voice. Royer-Collard is the worst thing in the world: a sadist disguised as a moralist whom circumstance has endowed with some measure of power. Where the abbe reaches out to his patients with understanding and humility, Royer-Collard simply tortures them until they relinquish their insane behavior. (His dunking machine is like a forerunner of the punishing medical contraptions in The Right Stuff.)

Sade responds to the doctor’s mission with an opening salvo that couldn’t hit closer to home. The abbe has allowed the marquis to form his fellow inmates into a theatrical troupe that stages plays for the visiting gentry, and when Royer-Collard arrives at the asylum, Sade welcomes him with a ferocious satire of the doctor’s arranged marriage to a girl one-third his age. “Do you mean to take us all down with you?” the uncomprehending abbe demands of the marquis as Royer-Collard prepares to lower the boom. The doctor means to staunch the flow of Sade’s works into the mainstream as if they were bacteria, and so he confiscates the tools of the marquis’ trade—his ink and quills. It’s the one action that Sade doesn’t have a comeback for, at least not until he realizes that other materials—a chicken bone and a splash of wine, for instance—might serve as writing materials, and the discovery invigorates him. The ensuing relationship between the two men is a minimalist’s game, a race to zero, as Sade meets the doctor’s increasingly sordid violence with a determination to let no amount of deprivation or abuse still his voice.

Kaufman hasn’t shaken all of the theatrical roots from Wright’s script, and Quills remains an idea play that “asks questions” about such upper-case issues as Censorship and the Morality of Art. The ideas and ironies have too much thesis-sentence clarity to shade off into poetry on their own, but Kaufman expresses them with such a dense and passionate interplay of picture and situation that Quills avoids becoming a declamatory, stiff-backed “classic.” Even the pat (and unnecessary) transformation involving the doctor’s child-wife can’t hold Quills back—the movie is too brutal and hilarious, too profane and sensual, for that. Beginning with its brief prologue (an exercise in misdirection that veers from sexual rapture into sudden horror), Quills is filled with primal movie moments, as when a woman who’s about to be guillotined glances down into a basket filled with human heads that appear to be waiting for hers to join them. Kaufman’s pictures always look glorious and Quills is no exception, and, in an imaginative tribute to the setting, cinematographer Rogier Stoffers has unobtrusively covered his images with a smoky veneer, as if they were old paintings in need of a slight cleaning.

The marquis’ heroism is inseparable from his self-destructiveness; dressed in the rags of the suit he arrived in, he’s a devil who can’t help but push people beyond their comfort zones, forcing them to retaliate. He’s both charismatic and repellent when he plays a kissing game with Madeleine, and even atheists may be shocked by his reaction to a Bible that Coumier offers to him. But Rush doesn’t overdo the character’s decadence or flamboyance—he never turns the marquis into a dirty-minded Auntie Mame. As the young woman whose physical stature is heightened by her fantasy life, Winslet is a tower of imaginary lewdness. She looks like someone who believes in what she’s doing, both as an actor and as a character, when she swaggers through the asylum’s corridors; by the end of the movie you feel sated by her presence. Coumier is like a Peace Corps volunteer whose good works are undone by a single unruly villager, and Phoenix, one of our best young actors, already has the range to handle his Graham Greene-ish arc of disillusionment. Caine keeps a leash on Royer-Collard’s villainy by acting mostly through his saucer-like eyes, two blue limpid mirrors that remain dryly unconvinced of anything that he doesn’t want to see.

Kaufman’s knack for re-creating a particular time and place (post-Civil War Missouri, the Prague Spring, the dawn of the American Space Age) is on full display here, and so is the “European sensibility”—really, an adult, engaged approach to moviemaking—that many critics have detected in him. Instead of depicting the play-within-the-film in straight-ahead fashion, Kaufman turns it into a voluptuous reverie that fills our ears with its music; when we suddenly notice that everything’s going wrong for the characters, it’s as if we’re waking up to a bad dream. And Kaufman really shows off his stuff in one of the most inventive sequences of his career. Sade, reduced to a gray naked man in a gray naked cell, dictates one last story to Madeleine by relaying it through a tag-team of madmen, each of whom receives it sentence by whispered sentence through a network of holes in the walls between their adjacent dungeons. It’s the kind of idea that nearly all of today’s working directors would flub (if they’d think to include it at all), but Kaufman zips it together in a fluid continuous rush, then caps it off with a shot of the hallway linking the cells as it’s filled with a blissful, murmurous babble.

Quills is more than a howl of protest against the forces of oppression—in its heart, it’s a howl of agony. A chorus of self-contented “Ah’s” could be heard running through the theater when it seemed that the marquis’ unquenchable spirit would burn on beyond his death (and so on), but only a moment’s thought is needed to see that the movie offers a spark of triumph at best. The creative, skeptical, sexually charged, and anarchic face of humanity will never be fully extinguished, but in those instances that it’s driven underground and its tongue is severed from its roots, it becomes hard to imagine what might ever rid the world of its Royer-Collards. (Nothing can compensate for the damage they’ve done.) The good doctor’s ice baths and iron maidens may be out of step with the spirit of our age, but the deviant who wishes to be heard today must break through an equally intimidating permafrost of public indifference and official hostility. Marvelously alive and meticulously crafted, Quills itself is a tale whispered through the cracks in a dungeon’s walls.

– Tom Block