- Hurts so good
Directed by Philip Kaufman
"Quills" covers the last few years of imprisonment of the Marquis de
Sade--the famous novelist whose works explicitly link pain, or the
infliction of it, to sexual pleasure.
It's strong subject matter to explore and it's unfortunate that Doug
Wright's play, from which the movie is based, doesn't quite live up to the
real Sade. We get generous samples of his more sexually explicit passages,
but little of the violence and cruelty (passages in "Justine" come to mind,
where Justine and others are copiously bled--partly for the pleasurable high
caused by loss of blood, partly for the blood itself, which is drunk like a
rare vintage). Wright's Sade is partly sanitized; he's conceived as if he
were merely a champion of sexual freedom--something from which we can all
benefit--instead of being what he really is, an encyclopedia of every dark
and dangerous impulse that has ever or will ever cross the human psyche.
There's the whiff of something exciting and forbidden in Wright's Sade;
what's lacking (at least during the early part of the film) is the stink of
shit, blood, hate, and terror.
The film is similar to Lasse Hallstrom's "Chocolat" in its simplistic
message, and its rather heavy-handed use of symbols--Sade (Geoffrey Rush)
represents the tormented artist; Sade's keeper, the Abbe de Coulmier
(Joaquin Phoenix), represents humanity and sweet reason; Dr. Royer-Collard
(Michael Caine), assigned by Napoleon to stop Sade's "subversive" writings,
represents the repressive establishment. The difference lies in the
directors, and in the final impression left by each picture upon the
viewer--where Lasse Halstrom is a skilled craftsman, Philip Kaufman, is a
talented artist; where "Chocolat" is a namby-pamby affirmation of
non-conformity, "Quills" is a passionate cry for artistic expression, at no
matter what cost.
"Quills" may obscure Sade's more extreme tendencies, but at least it
(correctly, I'd say) singles him out as the last signpost in the landscape
of freedom, the ultimate Larry Flynt test-case: is this man--this torturer
and mutilator of female genitals, this frankly pornographic writer--an
artist whose works are worth reading? Can we possibly think of him, of all
people, as a sane and intelligent human being, worthy of the right to
More, to what lengths will a writer go to express himself? The answer to
which may be the reason for the title--quills, or rather the lack of them,
are what drive Sade to creative solutions in writing even more ingenious and
imaginative than the sexual positions he so obsessively writes about. He
uses literally anything to write, and does--a chicken wish-bone dipped in
wine, scrawled on bedsheets; his own blood, scribbled on every inch of
clothing on his body; even his own feces, daubed against stone prison walls.
Kaufman's hand can be seen in the moments of comedy or beauty he discovers
while telling the story. Sometimes they can be found in the most unexpected
moments--the comedy of a pair of legs flapping about helplessly, for
example, as Sade is dunked by one of Dr. Royer-Collard's torture devices; or
the beauty of a dead woman floating tranquilly in a laundry vat.
But the film's strongest element is its acting, almost always a given in
Kaufman's films. Joaquin Phoenix is all soulful eyes and sensitive,
trembling lips as the Abbe de Coulmier, a bystander caught in the clash
between Sade and his doctor. Kate Winslet is all earthy loveliness as
Madeleine the laundress, an angel both pure and tantalizingly accessible.
Michael Caine plays Royer-Collard to reptilian perfection, the introverted
opposite to Sade's maniacal extrovert. At the same time, he's an
unacknowledged sadist, a figure of respect and power who practices what Sade
preaches, but with the approval of law and morality (which makes you
think--Who's the smarter? Who's the more honest and courageous? And who,
in word and deed, resembles most the Catholic Church in its recent actions
against the Philippine film industry?).
Geoffrey Rush (he won an Academy Award for "Shine") portrays Sade's need to
write with a passion and exuberance and level of detail I've never seen in
any actor this year, or for that matter, any actor in recent years. I can
go on and on about just what Rush has accomplished, but I'll cite two
examples: early in the film, when he's watching a beheading, the expression
on his face betrays a hint of ambivalence. Distant delight, yes, but
also--envy? This is Sade, from whose name the term 'sadism' came
from--looking out that window, at all those lopped-off heads, he may have
been jealous of the level of death and chaos achieved by legitimate
government, as opposed to some mere iconoclast rebel. Later, he steps up to
stage in the middle of a theatrical production he's written and declares
airily "it's only a play"--this, after a woman has been nearly raped, and a
man's face badly burned. It's in these moments that Rush and Kaufman hit
the right note of irresponsibility and malevolence that Sade was all about,
and the film as a result acquires an extra bloom of darkness. "Quills,"
flawed as it is, is I think the best Hollywood film of last year, and
possibly one of the best films I've seen this year.
(Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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