Who could resist a tale of the infamous Marquis de Sade, the 18th century spinner of grotesque and “naughty little tales” that indulged “every spasm of lust”? If a bit of eroticism is what you’re hoping to find in Philip Kaufman’s Quills, you’re headed for disappointment. This is not a tale of erotic delights, but a provocatively macabre spectacle about one man’s consuming passion for words and his quest for artistic freedom in the face of government repression and religious censure.
The film, written by Doug Wright and based on his stage play, takes place primarily in the insane asylum where the unrepentant marquis, imprisoned for his ideas, spent his final years. Under Kaufman’s direction, the evocatively filmed screen version is a fascinating hybrid—amusing and terrifying, grotesque and strangely beautiful. It begs the question, what is more unwholesome, an unpopular idea or the cruel suppression of that idea? As one character so perfectly discovers, “There is beauty and abomination in each man.”
The film opens to a quivering young woman, whose snowy neck is engulfed by a pair of dirty hands hungrily groping her before ripping her bodice. These beefy hands belong to a hooded executioner, who is gleefully preparing the girl for the guillotine. This opening and the gruesome final scene bookend a production in which the most sadistic acts are carried out by cruel executioners. The asylum itself is a place of sadism where the bizarre tools intended for curing the insane are little more than devices of torture. But that’s the point of Wright’s play and Kaufman’s film: Institutionalized power gives rise to the most sadistic acts of all.
The marquis, whose name became synonymous with torture for pleasure, may spin tales both tantalizing and disturbing, but he turns out to be the film’s most principled character. This mocking artist refuses to compromise his artistic freedom to appease the censorious authorities. He will not be bound by social convention, government or God. Geoffrey Rush relishes the role of the defiant artist. His marquis is a raging rebel who clearly delights in titillating and shocking his audience, but most of all he enjoys amusing himself with his words. Rush strips this character naked in a performance so raw it’s absolutely riveting. The marquis is portrayed as a character of his own creation, whose quill is mightier than any sword. In the asylum, he is accorded a certain celebrity status. He’s given his own quarters, a featherbed, his antique writing desk, his books, a supply of fine wine and all the quills and ink he desires.
Kate Winslet is perfectly cast as the virginal chambermaid, Madeleine, who comes under the spell of the marquis’ words. She smuggles his incendiary prose out of the asylum in her laundry basket and delivers them to eager publishers, who print them for eager readers. Madeleine defends the marquis as “a writer, not a madman.” To her, reading his words is freedom, which explains why she continually puts herself at risk in order to bring them to a larger audience. Her complicity is hardly criminal, nor is it deserving of the horrible fate that befalls her. This lusty innocent is merely a link in the chain of supply and demand.
Of course, what consumers demand is viewed as incredibly dangerous by the authorities, particularly by the villainous doctor (Michael Caine) sent to the asylum to reign in the celebrated madman. The marquis immediately sees the doctor for what he is: a hypocritical brute whose wedding night rape of a 16-year-old girl taken straight from a convent is as sadistic as any scenario the marquis invents. In that scenario, the marquis sees “all the makings of a farce,” which he promptly writes for public presentation.
Up until this offense, the open-minded young priest who runs the asylum (Joaquin Phoenix) has been forgiving of the marquis and has even befriended him, though the marquis shakes his beliefs to the core. To the priest, the marquis’ purple prose is as offensive as his subject matter. He views the marquis as a “malcontent who can spell.” The priest tolerates the marquis’ writing as a means of “cleansing the toxins from his soul,” although he does not condone its publication.
When the enraged and publicly humiliated doctor threatens to close the asylum if the marquis continues writing, the priest orders all his quills and ink removed. The resourceful marquis cannot be silenced so easily. He takes to writing in wine on the bed sheets. When the doctor discovers this subversive act, he orders everything removed from the marquis’ room. The marquis starts writing on his waistcoat and trousers in his own blood. There is no stopping his flow of words, his lifeblood. Stripped of his clothes, chained in a cell, he will write in his own excrement on the walls. Writing is his only freedom.
The blasphemous marquis challenges not only the authority structure, but also Christianity itself, which he sees as the biggest farce. “Virgin birth!” he spits in a confrontation with the priest. “An entire religion based on an oxymoron.” He views God as the final authority on cruelty. “This monstrous god, who hung up his own son like a side of beef,” he snaps. “I shudder to think what he’d do to me.”
Wright’s scathingly witty script, which takes poetic license with historical details, captures the marquis’ wicked sense of humor and his strong distaste for hypocrisy. The brutality, though largely suggested, is not for the squeamish. Like its characters, Quills falls from grace, spiraling into a Fellini-esque nightmare that consumes and destroys them all—the marquis, Madeleine, and the priest who secretly loved her. Only the doctor is spared in the film’s gruesome turn of events. He emerges as the triumphant capitalist, an amoral opportunist whose principles are quickly adjusted when the possibility of profit presents itself. The entrepreneur survives while rebels and artists perish.
Quills (R) HHH Directed by Philip Kaufman. Starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix.