by Cathleen Myers
This is not a film for the faint at heart nor is it a film for historical purists. Although there are some historical characters in Quills, it is certainly not the true story of the final days of de Sade as a prisonier de marque at the Charenton Asylum. Quills might be best described as a fictional version of the Marquis de Sade’s demise as the Marquis himself might have written it. Adapted by Doug Wright from his own play and directed with panache and great dramatic power by Philip Kaufman, Quills is a powerful and engrossing film. Whether it succeeds in making a statement about the evils of censorship and the necessity of artistic freedom is a matter of debate.
The story is set almost entirely in Charenton, where the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) was imprisoned for the last years of his life, mostly in comparative luxury. The asylum’s administrator is the kindly and progressive young Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who prefers to use music and art therapy, amateur theatricals, and Christian kindness to treat his patients instead of the barbaric methods used at most early 19th century madhouses. Permitted to continue writing as part of his "therapy," the Marquis continues to publish his explicit and shockingly cynical pornographic novels and stories, which are smuggled out of the asylum by the lovely young laundress Madeleine (exquisitely played by Kate Winslett). Unfortunately, the Marquis’ works, especially his novel Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, have come to the attention of the Emperor Napoleon, who sends a certain Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to "cure" the Marquis by any means necessary. As the Doctor’s methods are sadistic, even by 19th century standards, some viewers will find the film unpleasantly graphic but such methods were certainly used in period. The film’s central tension is derived from the Marquis’ desperate attempts to find the means to continue writing after, literally, everything has been taken from him.
The film is an allegory of freedom of expression and individuality vs. censorship, law, and order, and you can probably guess which side wins. Quills has been criticized for one-sidedness since it’s absolutely impossible to dislike Geoffrey Rush’s witty and charming Marquis and impossible not to adore Kate Winslett’s Madeleine, who provides a lucid defense of both literary freedom and the Marquis’ writing (She's a very literate laundress!). There are half-hearted attempts in Quills to show the other side: the possible evil that an irresponsible author can do, the possibility that art may negatively influence unbalanced minds, etc. - and here and there a suggestion that the Marquis’ belief in aristocratic privilege isn’t quite cricket. But, on the whole, the scales are so weighted in favor of the Marquis’ quest for absolute freedom of speech and the press that the viewer has no option but to cry, "Vive la Liberté" and "Publish and be damned!" De Sade's nemesis Dr. Royer-Collard is such a one-dimensional melodrama villain - as sadistic as any creation of the Marquis' - that it is impossible to take him seriously (When he isn’t torturing patients, Royer-Collard reveals a taste for sadism in private life, even raping his convent-bred teenage bride on their wedding night). Napoleon, as the voice of law and order, is caricatured almost as badly in the film as he is in the television comedy "Jack of All Trades." And the progressive young Abbé who tries to be the voice of moderation and decency….Well, he simply hasn’t a chance of finding a happy medium and his fall from grace is clearly presaged almost from the very beginning.
If, however, you can overlook the extreme liberties taken with history (Hey! At least it’s not nearly as inaccurate as Elizabeth!) and can stomach the film’s sometimes extreme violence (scenes not out of place, really, in a story set in an 18th century asylum), Quills is a visually gorgeous film and there is much to reward the historically-minded viewer. The film beautifully captures the look and feel of Napoleonic France in all its decadent glory. Jacqueline West’s detailed costumes perfectly reflect class distinctions - from the fashionable Empire gowns worn by the upper class ladies to the old-fashioned late 18th century gowns worn by the servant girls. Thanks to proper corseting, the silhouettes are perfect and Miss Winslett’s is to die for. The scene in the prison theatre in which the slumming Society people come dressed to the nines to watch the inmates perform de Sade’s works at the asylum’s amateur theatre also rings very true. "Empire" Society was exactly that decadent!
Similarly, the Marquis’ ancien regime finery contrasts with the simple, sober post-Revolutionary styles worn by the doctor and the other professional men. The crowning touch is the Marquis’ insistence on wearing stays even in confinement! Ah, vanity! Another subtle touch: the Marquis’ cell, furnished with bits and pieces of his own, has far more real elegance than the dazzling nouveau riche palace reconstructed by the doctor’s expensive architect. Finally, the film’s language, if occasionally anachronistic ("I’m a laundress, not a detective"), is generally quite good, with some genuinely witty lines, especially from the Marquis himself. Vive la Liberté!
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