Screenplay : Doug Wright (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Geoffery Rush (The Marquis de Sade), Kate Winslet (Madeleine), Joaquin Phoenix (Coulmier), Michael Caine (Dr. Royer-Collard), Billie Whitelaw (Madame LeClerc), Patrick Malahide (Delbene), Amelia Warner (Simone), Jane Menelaus (Renee Pelagie), Stephen Moyer (Prouix)
"I didn't create the world," declares the Marquis de Sade in Philip Kaufman's Quills. "I just record it."
Of course, what the Marquis de Sade recorded was depravity--he viewed the world as a place of supreme depravity, in which criminality and sexual deviance were a natural and unavoidable part of human nature. He wrote freely about prostitutes and pederasts, murderers and sadomasochists in an era in which Enlightenment thinking about the inherent free will and perfectability of humankind was the prevailing philosophical view of life.
The essays and novels in which the Marquis developed his counter-Enlightenment philosophy of life are among the most infamous ever committed to paper. Some of them were found so offensive and scandalous that they were not published until 100 years after his death in an insane asylum in 1814. To this day, there is still debate as to the Marquis' state of mental health: Was he a radical thinker whose violent prose functioned as an extreme critique of the hypocrisies of bourgeois society, or was he a criminally insane sexual deviant who simply unleashed his own personal perversions on paper?
According to Doug Wright, who adapted his own stage play for the film, the Marquis was the former, rather than the latter. As portrayed with incendiary sexual energy and devious charm by Geoffery Rush (Shine), the Marquis was a self-centered but undeniably brilliant and irrepressible artist who was punished for holding a mirror up to the society in which he lived. Of course, this is the long-fought argument by all artists whose palettes include the darker elements of life. They see themselves as simply the messengers who are punished for the uncomfortable messages they bear.
The majority of Quills takes place inside the insane asylum at Charenton where the Marquis spent the last years of his life. When the film begins, he has already struck up a relationship with Madeline (Kate Winslet), a virginal chambermaid who sneaks his novels out with the laundry so they can be published and distributed. When Napoleon catches wind of the Marquis' publishing despite his incarceration, he orders Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a psychiatrist who still employs medieval methods of torture to "cure" the insane, to oversee the asylum, which is currently run by a kindly abbey, Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix).
The core of the narrative becomes a battle of wills between the Marquis and Dr. Royer-Collard. The Marquis views Royer-Collard as the ultimate in hypocrisy because he deplores the Marquis' sordid prose while thinking nothing of taking a child bride from an orphanage and squandering untold sums of money on a lavish chateau for her. Michael Caine's performance here is steely and corrupt--his Royer-Collard is man for whom hypocrisy has become a way of life, so deeply embedded in his soul that it is no longer recognizable. When the Marquis stages a play at the asylum mocking Royer-Collard's underage marriage, you get the feeling that he never gets the point beyond the fact that he is the butt of a joke.
As the film progresses, Dr. Royer-Collard forces Coulmier to suppress the Marquis' writing. The abbey was largely responsible for turning the Marquis on to the written page in the hope that, by cathartically exorcising his inner demons on prose, the Marquis would not be tempted to act on them in real life. Slowly, Coulmier is forced to take the Marquis' writing tools from him. When his paper, quills, and ink jars are taken, the Marquis writes in wine with a chicken bone on his bed linens. When those are taken from him, he writes on his clothes in his own blood. When he is stripped naked and left in a bare room, he still manages to find ways to transmit his thoughts to others. These moments are undeniably exhilarating as they depict the irrepressible nature of a man driven by his art.
Ultimately, this is the strongest theme in the film and the one that is most relevant to today's world. While modern methods of psychiatric medicine have improved greatly since the beginning of the 19th century, we still live in fear of the terrible power of art. And it is a terrible power. Although the film's argument is that art should not be suppressed and that we should allow the darkest portions of the human soul to be part of the artistic spectrum, the film does not shy away from the fact that certain kinds of art can be deadly in the wrong hands. The Marquis argues that it is absurd to think that his work could drive someone to violence, yet the film makes clear in several scenes that it does exactly that. Yet, in and of itself, that is not a sufficient argument to justify censorship. After all, as the Marquis points out, if someone drowned while trying to walk on water after reading the Bible, would that be grounds to censor it?
Geoffery Rush's performance as the Marquis de Sade is a marvel. Aggressive and charismatic, sadistic and sad, the Marquis is a human conundrum. Rush's work here is naked and raw, but also brilliantly funny. His Marquis is a quick wit and a student of human nature who knows how to manipulate people to his own ends. He also knows how to shock and outrage, and Rush revels in the devious glee the Marquis gets from the responses to his work, which range from obsessive adoration to outraged disgust.
The other performers are equally good. Kate Winslet is excellent as Madeline, a decent woman who still finds herself drawn to the Marquis' lurid prose. She has a small speech near the end in which she makes a lucid argument for the cathartic nature of violence in art, which is likely to set some people off. Joaquin Phoenix plays what is perhaps the most complex role. Coulmier is probably the least hypocritical person in the film, as he is truly committed to his religion and he honestly wants to help the Marquis. He treats everyone decently until forced to do otherwise, and even then he hates what he must do. It is a sad irony that he ends up suffering more than any other character in the film.
Quills was directed by Philip Kaufman, who has returned to the kind of powerful, erotically charged filmmaking that made The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) one of the best films of the 1980s. Kaufman is a bold filmmaker, and he directs Quills without a hint of restraint or compromise. His is a strong voice, and he ensures that the film's anti-censorship themes come through strongly without being plainly didactic. As the Marquis did, in Quills he holds a mirror up to ourselves, and what we see we might not like. But, we must see it, regardless, because it is only in facing up to the darkest side of the human soul that we can begin to know ourselves.
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary with screenwriter Doug Wright |
Still gallery of production artifacts
Original North American and Spanish theatrical trailers
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|The widescreen (1.85:1) anamorphic image on this DVD was a bit softer than I was expecting, although this is a result of the cinematography, rather than the transfer. Director of photography Rogier Stoffers shot much of Quills in a slightly soft-focus style, which emphasizes the almost dream-like (or, more aptly, nightmare-like) imagery in some scenes without sacrificing the exquisite detail of Martin Childs' set design or Jacqueline West's costumes, both of which were nominated for Oscars. The general color palette of the film is fairly drab, with much of the action taking place inside the cold stone walls of the asylum (many of these scenes have a sickish green tint to them). The transfer handles the colors well, though, and when there are moments of saturation, such as the bright green grass outside or a menacing red sky early in the film, the image is solid and natural-looking. Black levels are handled very well, with deep, rich shadows that betray no grain or graying out around the edges. All in all, a very good transfer.|
|The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is excellent, with subtle, but effective use of the surround channels and imaging to create a disturbingly enveloping environment in the Charenton insane asylum. Voices and strange sounds haunt the background throughout, and the clanking of steel keys and heavy doors gives the sense of weight and impact. There are a few showier aural moments, such as whenever Dr. Royer-Collard's carriage approaches, the low-frequency effects channel kicks in and the surround speakers create the thundering effect of the carriage riding right over you.|
| Although director Philip Kaufman is notably absent, screenwriter Doug Wright (who adapted his own stageplay for the film) does an excellent job contributing an insightful and entertaining screen-specific audio commentary (you know a writer is doing the commentary when he describes Michael Caine as "affable and avuncular"). He speaks at some length about the historical background of the film and what he changed (such as the fact that Abbe Coulmier was, historically, a four-foot hunchback dwarf). Wright's purpose, he says, was to mix Sade's life and his fiction; the film was never meant to reflect the historical Sade, but rather his spirit. One of the more interesting comments Wright makes is his admission that none of the Marquis' text in the film was actually written by Sade. Because they could not get the rights to use the English translation, Wright had to compose all of the incendiary prose himself. |
The disc also includes three brief featurettes that focus on different aspects of the production. The eight-minute "Marquis on the Marquee: A Discussion About the Screenplay Written by Doug Wright" actually focuses more on the film in general, with only scant attention to the actual screenplay or original stageplay. It is also somewhat ironic that Wright gets the least amount of interview face-time, with much more emphasis given to director Philip Kaufman and all the actors. The four-and-a-half-minute "Creating Charenton With Production Designer Martin Childs" runs briefly through the design and construction of the insane asylum, while the seven-minute "Dressing the Part With Costume Designer Jacqueline West" focuses on the various costume designs.
The still gallery of production artifacts is divided into four sections: "Props and Letters," which contains nine stills of letters or other handwritten props; "Play Program and Ticket," which includes a still each of the program and ticket featured in the "Happy Shoemaker" scene; "Backdrop Design for 'The Happy Shoemaker,'" which contains five stills; and "Costume Designs," which features two design sketches, one for the Marquis and one for Madeline.
The original North American theatrical trailer is presented, for unknown reasons, in full-screen (the image quality is also fairly shoddy, really no better than videotape). The included Spanish theatrical trailer is exactly the same as its North American counterpart, except it has Spanish subtitles and the screen titles have been translated into Spanish (the film's title was changed to Letras Prohibidas: La Leyenda del Marquis de Sade, which translates to Forbidden Letters: The Legend of the Marquis de Sade). Also included is a 30-second TV spot.
The "Fact and Film" section is brief, but interesting enough to make you wish more had been included. It gives a brief historical description of the main characters in the film--Madeleinge Leclerc (Kate Winslet's character), Renne Palagie (the Marquis' wife), Abbe Coulmier, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr. Antoine Royer-Collard--along with an interesting fact about the actor who played him or her.
©2000, 2001 James Kendrick