Quills (2000)

D: Philip Kaufman
S: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslett

Though-provoking if sometimes gruelling and occasionally overwrought drama exploring the ethics and moral responsibilities of the creative impulse, especially one in opposition to social norms. Based on the play by Doug Wright, Quills details the exploits of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) while imprisoned in an asylum during the last years of his life. Encouraged by a well-meaning and anachronistically forward-thinking priest (Joaquin Phoenix), de Sade commits his depraved visions of human sexuality and moral degradation to paper instead of acting them out as he used to. Though this seems to calm the troubled soul, a helpful chambermaid (Kate Winslett) has been aiding the Marquis in publishing these writings and they have become the scandal of Napolean's new empire. When an authoritarian doctor with a prediliction for corrective torture (Michael Caine) is sent to oversee the situation at the asylum by the Emperor, the stage is set of a series of confrontations in which personality, politics, and the demands of social order come into play.

Though its themes are relatively straightforward, one of the great strenghts of this film is its refusal to allow the audience an easy response to its characters. There is no clear-cut position one can adopt relative to the people you see on screen based on the action which transpires. Though Michael Caine's character is all too simply dropped into the category of hypocrite with his medical torture chamber and his underage bride, de Sade, his would-be captor, and his chambermaid confederate are more interesting. Their actions are frequently seen and shown both in relation to and direct opposition to expectation. Sometimes their behaviour is morally corrupt and seemingly inexcusable. At other times they reveal more complex motivations and inspirations for what they do rooted in the social and political environment as well as their individual personalities. This deepens the film on a thematic level because the viewer is required to filter their perception of events through a range of intellectual and emotional responses to these characters and their situations.

De Sade himself is of course the central figure in this dilemma for the audience. Unless one has a predisposition to brand him diabolist pervert before one sits down in the theatre (in which case you probably shouldn't be there anyway), the viewer is asked to observe and assess behaviour which on one hand seems vain and destructive but on the other understandable in the circumstances. The film is brave in not shying away from the more uncompromising aspects of his personality while lining him up for liberal martyrdom though. He is frequently as vulgar and repellent as many people have always seen him and he is far from cuddly and misunderstood (similiar to but more extreme than the way the title character was portrayed in The People vs. Larry Flynt). Geoffrey Rush (Shine, Elizabeth) gives a strikingly believable performance as de Sade in which the temptation to go over the top must have been constant. Physically ideal and with a great command of his voice which allows him to tease out the ambiguities of the dialogue, he gets to the schismatic core of the character and provides the film with many affecting moments.

Part man part monster, de Sade's monstrosity is shown in direct relation to the society in which he lives and his humanity equally so. He is both a reflection of the problems of Napolean's France and a product of them. Wright's script is careful to set a context for the action in which a world ruled by terror, egoism, and hypocrisy where the 'cure' is literally worse than the disease inevitably produces personalities at odds with their own sense of self (let alone moral or social norms). Class and educational divides affect every level of interaction between the characters, worked through an ethical morass with moral, social, and psychological determinants. In this environment, de Sade's self-loving, self loathing devotion to his art seems a positive outpouring of genuine social indignation. His ability to efface and express himself is of course also rooted in his own background as a nobleman who has survived the Terror. He now lives in reduced circumstances but keeps the trappings of his status around him. He toys with the low-born priest and the chambermaid, and though he may harbour real and human feelings for them both, he also retains his deep need to affect the lives of others; to exert power over other men as the film itself puts it at one point. This leaves the viewer with the challenge of sorting out if his social conscience is not merely the result of aristocratic arrogance and his art therefore purely self-indulgent.

Wright adds further layers of self-criticism by exploring how the sadomasochist paradigm can be extended beyond the physical. Not only do we see how de Sade and the other principals respond to his work and the cerebral dilemmas it raises, the film also examines viscreal effect that it has upon the wider community. Readers both in the asylum and outside are shown to be deeply affected by his stories of intermingling sex and violence. They are titillated, yes, but some are also spurred into actions as likely to spiral out of control and cause hurt to others as produce literal and mental liberation of the self. Again Wright does not refuse the challenge of questioning the default position; in this case that all self-expression is good. Rather than simply argue that art has its own voice which stands outside of societal convention, the film examines the consequences of undisciplined intellect. Pain and pleasure may indeed be dangerously close to one another, but neither is so appropriate or desirable that they are entirely interchangable. There is a time and place for everything, so to speak, and the dynamics of a power relationship should be based on mutual trust and understanding, not simply anarchic free will. The film climaxes with an apocalyptic and faintly over the top series of atrocities and disasters which have come directly from the Marquis' writings (as well as the attempt to repress them), and the audience is never certain if they should hold him or his captors responsible. Though Caine's nasty comic-book villain is an easy target, the film is more sublte in demonstrating the selfishness of de Sade's creative impulse. It argues that sometimes catharsis should not be shared. Mutual consent and understanding is in short supply on every level here, and the result is inevitably people at cross-purposes deriving differing levels of pain and pleasure from the same things, sometimes with fatal consequences.

The film veers between intricate and fascinating dichotomies such as these and more obvious pandering to generic expectation however. One sub-plot involving Caine's wife and the series of twists with which the story comes to an end are wholly unworthy of the body of the script and there are one or two moments where the whole thing feels like just a bit too much on all counts. Director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) manages to keep control of it (just about) throughout though, and with the help of evocative set designs and cinematography ensures that the film also has a visual life of its own. The gothic-grotesque torture chambers and orgiastic imagery is nothing new of course, but Kaufman makes his points through the use of space and frame as carefully as

Wright does. The film succeeds in conveying a sense of enclosure and claustrophobia which extends beyond the physical setting. It also has an appropriately grimy look throughout, with a muted palette of colours in cosumes and other decorations, and the skin tones of the actors' faces tend towards an unhealthy pallor which adds authenticity. It has a good level of visual energy which keeps things interesting during long stretches of dialogue, and though it graphically depicts scenes of sex and violence which those prone to offence will obviously find offensive, it doesn't revel in them to quite the extent that de Sade obviously does.

Quills is not exactly a crowd-pleaser and certainly will not appeal to all viewers, but it is interesting enough and raises enough questions for an attentive audience to make it worth seeing. It is not a conventional entertainment, but it is a solid enough exercise in storytelling if you're not too interested in its themes, and there is value in Rush's performance for those not disposed to pondering its imponderables. Winslett (Titanic) is fair enough in a role which requires more eagerness than navel-gazing as she carries the weight of the curious innocent through the depravity though Phoenix (Gladiator) seems frequently a little too tortured (pun intended) for his own good as the troubled priest. Caine is effective if one-dimensional, but Billie Whitelaw is wasted in a tiny supporting role as Winslett's blind mother. It has been seven years since Kaufman's last directorial effort (Rising Sun). This film restores his reputation as a director of sexual odysseys (Henry & June, The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Those familiar with this work will be slightly more interested than those not, but despite its many good points and worthy treatment of theme and character, it will probably attract more attention for what people may think it is than what we see on screen. It is worth a look though, with the obvious warning that it's not one for all the family.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.