Quills (2000)

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*. Here’s a movie I didn’t like very much.
*. Not because it has almost nothing to do with real story of the Marquis de Sade at Charenton.  As screenwriter Doug Wright (who was adapting his own play) puts it on the DVD commentary, there was no intention to be true to de Sade’s biography and so right from the beginning they wanted to indicate to the audience that his story had been “tarted up” a great deal, while remaining “true to his spirit.” Brook’s Marat/Sade was more historically accurate, and it was a musical.
*. Is it true to de Sade’s spirit? No, but I don’t mind that it’s a whitewash of de Sade, making an aged, morbidly obese, syphilitic reprobate into a fun-loving rebel who enjoys cocking a snoot at authority (and ends up paying the price). This is the modern Sadean myth — somewhat akin to the Mozart/Amadeus myth — and once history has been made over into myth then you just have to accept that it’s become something else.
*. No, the reason I don’t like it is simpler: it takes the story of de Sade and turns it into a clichéd historical drama with nothing new or interesting to say.

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*. Basically this is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest transplanted to post-Revolutionary France. De Sade is McMurphy, the madcap free spirit who doesn’t really belong in such an institution in the first place. Michael Caine’s Dr. Royer-Collard is Nurse Ratched, a grim figure of authority, more Sadean than de Sade in Wright’s view, who is intent on breaking the marquis’ rebellious spirit. This he finally does through a surgical intervention that silences the voice of the counterculture permanently.
*. The moral/psychological point is entirely conventional. De Sade represents artistic freedom, a natural force that will stop at nothing to express itself. Royer-Collard and the Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) represent authority and oppression — the man of science and the man of God, as Coulmier helpfully points out, in case there were any chance we might have missed it. Of course, both are repressed. Virtue is hypocrisy. They are the real perverts.
*. There is nothing either complicated or subtle about the presentation of all this. Indeed, Philip Kaufman lays it on with a trowel. Denied quills, de Sade writes with his own blood. Royer-Collard not only takes a child bride, but keeps her locked in her rooms and deflowers her without consideration or even pleasure. Cutaways to a statue of the Virgin Mary, check. Simone predictably responds to this treatment by transforming from convent girl to lusty adulteress. Madeleine is betrayed by the one unattractive maid at Charenton, who complains about de Sade’s stories while being unable to get enough of them. And so it goes, all the way down the line.

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*. No one, however, suffers worse than Joqauin Phoenix. Miscast to begin with, the role itself is impossible. For starters, the repressed clergyman stands out as the biggest cliché in a cast full of them. His scenes with Madeleine verge on parodic. Will he dare to break his vows? Then he is given a series of ridiculous poses to hold, as when he bizarrely strips off his cassock to take Madeleine’s place at the whipping post, or when he runs outside in the rain during the fire scene so that he can scream barechested at the heavens “Madeleine!!!!”
*. In the final movement of the film, however, things get even worse, as he imagines having sex with a resurrected Madeleine only to awaken to a crucifix crying tears of blood before suffering a final, totally improbable, descent into madness, incarcerated in his own asylum after having been somehow possessed by the spirit of de Sade.
*. Indeed the whole movie collapses at the end, with the totally ahistorical and thematically heavy-handed business of de Sade having his tongue cut out. As if the movie hadn’t been obvious enough up to that point.
*. One potential area of interest has to do with the causes and effects of pornography: where it comes from, how it may lead to the corruption of innocence, and its addictive hold over weaker minds. Is pornography a response to repressive social mores? Does it lead to violence? Can it be a kind of therapy? Is it art? These are all valid questions, but in the end I don’t see where the film has anything new to say about what are old and admittedly still highly contentious points.

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*. I just couldn’t get into a movie that was so trite. I felt like I was twenty minutes ahead of it the whole way, or at least until the very end when it swerves into absurdity. The actors are fine, but because they’re just representing types there’s never any sense of tension between them. Shot entirely in a greenish milky light, there’s none of the rawness you’d expect from such material. De Sade, both the man and the myth, was a truly nasty piece of work, but here he’s just a faded roué who only wants to write. I couldn’t help thinking that if they had tried to be more historically accurate the results would have been more dramatic.
*. A movie like this doesn’t have to shock, but it does have to be dangerous. Unless we can feel that danger we’re not dealing fairly with de Sade’s legacy. But can any film hope to do that today? Art has almost entirely lost its ability to shock, controversy becoming just another marketing gimmick. I take it that’s the meaning behind the twist at the end, as de Sade’s novels are being used to fund the asylum (and line Royer-Collard’s pockets). The real horror is that the Man won not be destroying de Sade’s spirit but by co-opting it. Much is often made of how de Sade is one of the very few authors whose name has entered the language. Not just as a psychological condition, but as a commercial brand.

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