Cruel and Unusual

"Dear reader, I have a naughty little tale to tell. . . . " So begins Quills, Philip Kaufman's earnestly overblown celebration of the Marquis de Sade, adapted for the movies by Doug Wright from his Obie-winning exercise in intellectual Grand Guignol.

Assuming a fun, rowdy tone from the get-go, Quills opens in 1794 Paris with a brief pastiche of Sade's catalog of atrocity Juliette and a blade's-eye view of a liberated young woman being whacked by the guillotine. Sade, at this point our narrator, gazes down from his prison window on the bloody terror—as though he were at once product and prophet of the French Revolution. Having paid homage to Madame Tussaud, the film leaps a decade or more into the future and the marquis's internment at the Charenton insane asylum.

It is here that Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is freest to be himself—confined with his monstrous ego and the means to indulge it. Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the young abbé who administers the hospital, is a man of the Enlightenment; he believes in art therapy, explaining to one pyromaniac how much better it is to paint fires than set them. Hence Sade, comfortably ensconced in a cell stocked with moldy sex toys, is encouraged to stage theatricals and write stories—which, unbeknownst to Coulmier, the institution's comely laundress, Madeleine (Kate Winslet with a mild Cockney accent), has been smuggling out to Sade's avid publishers.

Porn yesterday: Quills’ Rush at rest in the shock corridor
photo: David Appleby
Porn yesterday: Quills’ Rush at rest in the shock corridor


Directed by Philip Kaufman
Written by Doug Wright, from his play
A Fox Searchlight release

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, from the book by Dr. Seuss
A Universal release

Reading the marquis's outrageous manuscripts aloud to her friends (who are inspired by what they hear to spontaneously form a threesome), virtuous Madeleine is the sweetheart of the loony bin—she's variously pursued by a feebleminded 300-pound wanker, yearned for by Coulmier, and continually propositioned by Sade, all the while maintaining her virginity. (Although Madeleine's chastity is considered admirable and even necessary to the movie's argument, the filmmakers assume a modern, anticlerical tone toward Coulmier, who is shown as worse than a fool for not following through on his sexual feelings for the girl who so admires him.)

Wright's script takes more liberties with history than Sade does with Madeleine. Still, it's essential to the premise that Sade's anonymous books attract a popular audience and even make money. When a few humorous passages from Justine are read aloud to Napoleon, France's newly crowned emperor demands that the book be burned and its author shot. Cooler heads prevail, and instead, the stern Dr. Royard-Collard (Michael Caine) is dispatched like an 18th-century Lynne Cheney to oversee overly permissive Charenton. Greeted by a gaggle of singing inmates, the doctor tartly remarks that "playing dress-up with cretins sounds like a symptom of madness, not a cure"—the best one-liner given to anyone in the movie other than Geoffrey Rush.

A ridiculously incorrigible roué crowned with a long, ratty gray wig, Rush's strutting, winking, leering Sade sends each delicious bon mot out into the world with lip-smacking glee. This Sade is far less philosophical than the more urbane Divine Marquis played by Daniel Auteuil in Benoit Jacquot's rival production Sade (not yet acquired for U.S. release), and also a tad less blasphemous—although he does at one point spit on the Bible. Indeed, the biggest sadist in Quills is, of course, Dr. Royard-Collard.

Living out his own tawdry gothic novel while Sade's "crimes" are limited to his imagination, Royard-Collard claims his orphan child-bride from a compliant convent and installs her in the barred-window boudoir of a renovated castle as his prisoner of love. This juicy information soon spreads through Charenton and Sade takes it as the subject for a farce, which is performed for Dr. and Madame Royard-Collard by a troupe that proves to be remarkably accomplished, given that they haven't had the benefit of any rehearsal or even a read-through prior to the play's world premiere.

Rising to Sade's bait, the irate Royard-Collard shuts down the theater and commands the hapless Coulmier to prohibit the miscreant Sade from any further writing. Deprived of his quills, the diabolical author forges on using wine and a chicken bone to inscribe a tale of necrophilia on his bedsheets—and that's just for starters.

It's striking that both Sade and Quills humanize the marquis by having him cast his spell on innocent young girls. Quills, however, goes further in conceptualizing Sade's audience as essentially female. Madame Royard-Collard is one such fan, who, in effect, seals Sade's fate when she slips her well-thumbed copy of Justine to the handsome young architect who is redecorating the castle—then leaves the book behind as evidence for her cuckolded hubby to find. For her part, Madeleine is proud to play Jeanne d'Arc to Sade's dauphin. She is publicly flogged for aiding and abetting his writings, but her devotion to the cause leads her to ask the marquis for one last tale of baroque debauchery—relayed from Sade's cell to hers telephone-style by a helpful network of inmates.

The effect is grossly overstimulating. Even the weather turns stormy and the entire asylum runs amok in a full Shock Corridor of rape, mutilation, self-flagellation, necrophilia, and coprography (if that's the scientific term for writing with human feces). All this is quite risible until it turns actively unpleasant. I'm inclined to agree with my colleague Michael Musto, who suggested that the reason various characters have their tongues ripped out is to prevent the actors from chewing away the scenery.

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