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Quills

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  • Noel Vera
    Hurts so good Noel Vera Quills Directed by Philip Kaufman Quills covers the last few years of imprisonment of the Marquis de Sade--the famous novelist
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 23 9:05 AM
      Hurts so good

      Noel Vera

      "Quills"

      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
      self-expression?

      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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