[Written for The Stranger]
The Marquis de Sade has been many things to many people, but the fact remains that he wrote for one person only: himself. It’s this very monomania that gives his works their coldly granitic fascination, page after page of mechanized sexual debasement hewn out like so many identical slabs of stone, and it’s also why he can disturb the most open-minded reader. Quills, the new movie loosely (very loosely) based upon the latter years of de Sade’s life, seeks to rehabilitate his image into that of Brave Soldier in the Noble Battle against Hypocrisy. This not only flattens and dulls the film’s subject, it also makes for one hell of a hypocritical movie in its own right.
Shortly after the French Revolution, de Sade resides locked away in the Charenton mental hospital. The institute is run by the kindly Father Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), all soft eyes and tender skin and fumbling attempts at reaching his patients’ hearts. Believing in the curative power of artistic expression (“It’s far better to paint fires than to set them,” he counsels an arsonist, loping off before registering the distinctly noncommittal “yes” in response), Coulmier has allowed de Sade to continue writing his pornographic prose. Though meant for private consumption only, the writings are secreted out of Charenton by the laundry maid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), and their popularity on the streets of France has caused outraged apoplexy among the powers that be. Rejecting the notion of killing the author outright, for reasons that quite escaped me, they decide instead to install a new head at Charenton: the gruesomely authoritarian Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who arrives with his child bride and his instruments of torture in tow. Water dunkings, leechings, iron maidens! And the doctor turns out to be greedy as well, draining the savings of de Sade’s wife to pay for the remodeling on his new home. Ah, comparing this cruelty with the writings of de Sade, where does the real obscenity lie?
Well, in both, obviously — I fancy de Sade’s shade would be outraged at the notion that he was less offensive than some silly, money-grubbing old sawbones — but that’s a simple, logical step that writer Doug Wright and director Philip Kaufman resolutely refuse to acknowledge. In fact, they make ludicrous concessions to proclaim de Sade a healthy force for good, especially for women. His fantasies are liberating for the healthy, virginal Madeleine, and the much-abused Mdm. Collard (Amelia Warner) is so mightily influenced by Justine that she learns to take sexual matters into her own hands, sucks off the architect, and turns the tables on her abusive husband.
It is Quill’s ridiculous and arrogant conceit that the world can be evenly divided into two camps: bad, bad, repressed people who haven’t got a decent bone in their body, so to speak; and the rest of us. It panders and flatters its audience at every turn, hammering out every one of its inane messages with pedagogic juxtapositions and hilariously overwrought speechmaking. And like any overly simple argument, it’s as confused as all get-out. If you’re preaching sexual liberation, why insist on the heroine’s purity? And why are the desires of the priest and the doctor viewed so negatively? Rather than a blow for frankness, the movie is actually a tepid endorsement of some safe experimentation within accepted boundaries; when the lunatics briefly take over the asylum, the ensuing orgy is filmed like an ancient horror movie, with Geoffrey Rush laughing in the lightening’s flickering glow (like Colin Clive summoning his creation to life — without, alas, James Whale’s irony).
Rush has gained some applause for his flashy performance as de Sade, and he does have a manic glee about him, but he’s as trapped in the movie’s false conception as anybody else. Not only does he get all the good lines, but his enraged insults toward his wife, the merry little jig he dances after outsmarting his keepers and managing to write despite their removal of his quills and ink — all are just rollicking good fun, the deserved overindulgence of an artist set free. Just once does Rush allow a monstrous ego to break out: Warned by Coulmier that his behavior could harm his fellow inmates, de Sade snaps loose an alarming “Fuck ’em, they’re half-wits and pinheads!” This is something close to Royer-Collard’s more unguarded thoughts, and a smarter and braver film would have had the two recognize a secret kinship, not merely an unadorned antagonism. I can see them together now, the doctor and the pornographer, chuckling over their brandies while the scullery maids bend down before them.