Censorship and Sensibility

Quills gives the Marquis de Sade the soft-focus treatment. 

Directed by Philip Kaufman
Fox Searchlight

Censors are so much fun to hate! Merely by their opposition, they have a way of turning otherwise insipid or despicable pornography into a cause célèbre—something sexy, politically liberating, even life affirming. Philip Kaufman’s sumptuous new tragicomedy Quills is a poison-pen letter to the most loathsome breed: the ones who publicly stifle artistic freedom while privately indulging in the vices that they persecute. The setting for this barbed parable is France’s Charenton Asylum, in which the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned until his death in 1814, and in which he penned, clandestinely, some of his most unruly novels. The director and Doug Wright, who adapted his own play for the screen, don’t appear to be interested in the most vivid thrust of de Sade’s fiction: that torture, rape, and grisly murder are the natural right of the sexual aristocrat. Instead, they transform the marquis into an anti-establishment provocateur and martyr, a symbol of the rebel-artist who must sublimate or die, and his antagonists into vicious hypocrites whose repression constitutes the more insidious evil.

The movie has been acclaimed in some circles as a masterpiece, and it’s certainly one of the most provocative big-studio products in years. (How it slipped past Rupert Murdoch we’ll never know.) But if Quills has the breadth of a masterpiece, it doesn’t have the depth of one: The dramatic case is too settled, the narrative trajectory too smug, the view of the transgressive artist too naive. What the film does have is coruscating anger, impish wit, and a breathtaking style. Kaufman is celebrating de Sade, but he’s no sadist. He’s out to pleasure you.

From the start, his take on de Sade’s “forbidden” writings is stirringly romantic, even aphrodisiacal. The marquis (Geoffrey Rush) slips the pages of his latest opus, ink still wet, into the arms of a buxom laundress, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who in turn passes them through the asylum gates into the hands of a roguishly handsome horseman. Sneaking back inside, she comes face to face with the earnest young Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who’s visibly intoxicated by her assets and utterly miserable about it. He counsels her to practice reading as a way of guarding against corruption, and in the next shot she’s reading, all right: de Sade (“… her Venus mouth, her flaxen quim, the watching eye of God …”), to servants in the middle of a group grope, while through a peephole a bald, monstrous inmate is ogling her and jerking off. The sequence represents the movie at its most puckish and foreboding: joyful naughtiness accompanied by hints of something ugly swelling up in an impressionable (i.e., infantile and psychotic) mind.

The Abbé de Coulmier is a compassionate idealist who believes that the cure for de Sade’s perversions is allowing him to expel his poisons—i.e., to write. What he doesn’t know is that those expulsions are being printed and read by thousands of his countrymen—among them the emperor, Napoleon, who dispatches the grim “alienist” and torturer Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton to put the kibosh on the marquis’ publishing career. What follows is an increasingly ugly battle of wits. The insolent de Sade baits Royer-Collard by mounting, Hamlet-like, a play in verse on the subject of the old man’s forcible marriage to a comely convent teen-ager (Amelia Warner)—”Pretty morsel/ Get on your back/ Let’s try it dorsal.” The upshot is that the marquis is stripped of his possessions, books, paper, and quills. Like a scorpion unable to discharge its own venom, de Sade sickens and becomes desperate, until he turns to his own blood for ink. In the splendidly blood-and-thunder climax, he relays a sordid tale through the walls of the asylum, his words passed (often mutating) from inmate to volatile inmate to Madeleine with paper and quill, the cause of artistic freedom finally spawning a Bacchae-like orgy of rape and murder.

Quills moves inexorably from mordant comedy to horror, but even at its most grueling, Kaufman’s palette (and that of his cinematographer, Rogier Stoffers, and production designer, Martin Childs) is flush with excitement. The blood is Grand Guignol by way of Hammer Studios. The blacks and grays of the curvy asylum corridors evoke Rembrandt and Hogarth; the characters’ faces, when they emerge into the light, are so translucent that you can read the faintest stirrings of passion in their cheeks. De Sade’s chamber is a perfumed universe of its own—luxuriant with depravity, festooned with dolls locked in eternal buggery. Kaufman’s virtuosity is not the frigid kind of Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick; he’s a sophisticated jokester who likes to goose you from shot to shot.

The director’s spirit is in sync with Rush’s de Sade—at least at first. The actor begins in hambone mode, emerging from the shadows like a fruity Count Dracula and purring to Madeleine: “You’ve already stolen my heart, as well as another prominent organ south of the equator.” This marquis is alternately glib and infantile, but when robbed of his tools of expression his antic mask dissolves and Rush’s performance achieves a flayed, hell-bent stature. He falls on a still-steaming roast chicken and digs out the wishbone, the juices running from his fingers, and fashions a new kind of quill to plunge into a glass of red wine. The compulsion to write has never been portrayed as so madly, epicureanly sexual. Later, after bleeding himself, Rush reclines on a cabinet like an obscene sprite and waves to Madeleine with punctured digits tied off. The last scenes find him naked and pathetically exposed, his skin ashen and saggy. He’s not succumbing from hunger—just the reverse. His own toxins are killing him.

Should the viewer have any doubt that the movie’s de Sade is a vulnerable, good-hearted fellow, it’s wiped out by his lewd but solicitous treatment of Winslet’s virginal laundress. The real de Sade was apparently equally fond of the real Madeleine, but he also spent many hours literally screwing her for money. Kaufman and Wright offer her up as proof that pornography need not corrupt: “If I wasn’t such a bad woman on the page,” she says, “I hazard I wouldn’t be such a good woman in life.” That I didn’t groan when I heard that line is testament to Winslet’s gorgeous performance, which manages to be at once ripely self-possessed (the phrase “saucy wench” is impossible to suppress) and tremulously open. She and Phoenix make a heartbreaking match. He’s not the first actor who comes to mind for the role of a fervently benevolent intellectual, but he’s stunningly good. A standard-issue male ingénu would have made de Coulmier too monochromatically virtuous; with Phoenix, the struggle between lust and duty is right there in his peculiar physiognomy. In some ways, the abbé is a thankless role, yet it’s Phoenix’s performance that centers the movie and—when the abbé becomes a torturer himself—gives it what dramatic complexity it has.

What irons out that complexity is Quills’ stock villain, who is viewed by the filmmakers in precisely the same way he’s viewed by de Sade—which makes for stirring political melodrama but profoundly boring drama. Once the shock of seeing Michael Caine as a torturer wears off—his natural affability locked behind a seething mask—there’s nothing to discover in the character or performance. Royer-Collard has no redeeming qualities. He’s a hypocrite, a voluptuary posing as an ascetic, and a more dedicated sadist than de Sade. He extorts money for his own palatial home from the marquis’ long-suffering wife (Jane Menelaus). In an especially contemptible touch, he glimpses an atrocity about to be committed against a well-loved character and allows it to go forward, presumably in the hope that this will justify further injury to de Sade.

My contempt for the hypocrisy of the typical right-wing moralist is equal to Kaufman’s and Wright’s. Crude as it is, Joe Eszterhas’ fantasy in American Rhapsody of Kenneth W. Starr obsessing over his White Whale, Bill Clinton, while masturbating to the memoirs of Gennifer Flowers has its piquancy: Take that, wretched Puritan! Who was not, on some level, deeply satisfied by the exposure of New York’s obsessively moralistic mayor—a man once celebrated for denouncing a scatological art exhibit now parading around town with his mistress after informing his spouse via press conference that she was history? What of that serial wife-abandoner Newt Gingrich blaming the counterculture for Susan Smith’s drowning of her children—only to learn that she’d been shaped as a teen-ager by the nocturnal visits of her stepfather, a fervent churchgoer and Republican pooh-bah? What of the Boston University dean who denounced Hollywood’s lack of morality in a speech that turned out to have been largely plagiarized from a book by the reactionary film critic Michael Medved? The scandal, in all these instances, was not the sin itself but that it coexisted with the impulse to cast the first stone. Wright and Kaufman have the correct target.

The trouble is that they cheat. To clinch their case, they’ve ignored the aspect of de Sade that makes his work potentially worthy of … if not censorship, then at least constraint. This man wasn’t the Hugh Hefner or Larry Flynt of his era. He wasn’t the Lenny Bruce of his era. He wasn’t the Anne Rice of his era. The most disturbing exhortation in his writing is not on behalf of promiscuity or kinky sex between consenting adults. It’s that an exalted individual (i.e., him) may put his or her own pursuit of pleasure before the rights of other human beings, to the point where they may be tortured and killed for sexual gratification. This is a different beast, and a different set of provocations, from the ones depicted by Kaufman and Wright.

The truest expression of the Sadean worldview that I’ve seen in a film is Oliver Stone’s NaturalBorn Killers (1994), a punk-nihilist manifesto in which hipsterism (the movie’s equivalent of aristocracy) gives its protagonists absolute freedom to commit mass murder. As a sometime consumer of gut-munching Italian splatter pictures, I’m not often moved to call for a filmmaker to be suspended by his thumbs and whacked in the kidneys with a heavy branch—but for Stone I almost made an exception. When, after a copycat killing spree, the novelist John Grisham called for Stone to be held accountable, I toyed with the idea that he was right. I rejected it—but only barely. The makers of Quills loathe their censor so much that they can’t see the threat through his eyes, and so their one-sided critique is relatively easy to shrug off. The greater insult, ironically, is to the artist, who in this romantic scheme is always an innocent, sublimating in a trance and blithely disconnected from the consequences of his or her work. Do Kaufman and Wright really view their own kind as such simpletons?