Triumph of the quill

Philip Kaufman’s film Quills, scripted by Doug Wright from his play, is set in the same time-frame as Peter Weiss’s revolutionary theatrical piece The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, for short - whew - Marat/Sade. That is, each is set in the last days of the man the surrealists called “the divine marquis”, during the final incarceration of a life spent largely in prison.

Both plays take liberties with fact, making of the marquis a figure in a Sadean fiction. For Weiss, De Sade was an Antonin Artaud - inventor of the “theatre of cruelty” - before Artaud, a prism through which to explore issues of sexuality, madness and revolution.
Wright sees him in more-or-less the same way, minus the revolution (and the self-conscious meditation on the nature of theatre), and with value-added themes of repression and hypocrisy.

Quills makes for enthralling viewing, but it’s hard not to feel that its relation to Marat/Sade is rather similar to that of The Lion in Winter to Jean Anouilh’s Becket (both about Henry II). Quills is clever, sparking off a variety of ideas, but does not, perhaps, investigate them very deeply. Yet it has a great deal of verve, as well as visual and verbal wit, and is intellectually entertaining enough to be worth its busy couple of hoursÃ- running time.

Geoffrey Rush, who shone as a disconnected character in Shine, plays De Sade as another displaced person - removed from society by his compulsion to probe mercilessly the furthest reaches of human sexuality and violence. His is a larger-than-life performance, which suits a movie that is essentially a kind of fantasia of ideas rather than a realistic treatise (though it certainly has a didactic whiff about it). Simultaneously repellent and attractive, recklessly taunting his captors while refusing or unable to stop writing, Rush’s De Sade gains our sympathy even as we recoil from him.

De Sade’s ally in the asylum is its progressive head, the Abbé Coulmier (a rather naff, lispy Joaquin Phoenix), who sweetly treats its inmates with painting classes and amateur theatricals. His prescription for the marquis’s ills is that he write, that he “purge those wicked thoughts on paper”. Except that those wicked thoughts are finding their way out of the asylum, with the help of busty chambermaid Madeleine (a lovely, touching Kate Winslet), and into print.

His writings outrage the Emperor Napoleon, who wants the obscene marquis executed. An adviser, though, suggests that to cure him would be a more fitting punishment. So Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), whose therapeutic techniques are closer to medieval methods of torture than to Coulmier’s indulgent practices, is sent to Charenton to see to things. Caine is excellent as the bad doctor, all unctuous courtesy and thin-lipped malice - the evil version of the good doctor he played in i. As Royer-CollardÃ-s private life is disclosed, he emerges as a true-life sadist more pernicious than any of the marquis’s fictional ogres.

Or does he? The movie investigates the area of overlap between life and art, asking questions about the relative status of - and links between - the representation of evil deeds in fiction and their enactment in reality. Being a movie itself, it cannot perhaps answer these questions, though it is brave enough to be ambivalent: one avid reader of De Sade’s work finds in it innocent amusement; another is driven by it to savage deeds. The latter is mad, though: perhaps madness means the inability to keep fantasy within its limits.

Be seduced, be betrayed, be corrupted, be damned - these phrases appear on a series of postcards to promote Quills, and it’s amusing to try to work out what order, if any, they should go in. Seduction and betrayal are still active themes, but it is hard, nowadays, to understand all the social implications of what it meant to be corrupted or the religious resonances of what it was to be damned in De Sade’s day.

Wright and Kaufman’s modernist De Sade doesn’t pay much attention to theology, though it helps to remember that the historical marquis saw God as the greatest criminal of all and sought ostentatiously to emulate Him. That, perhaps, is another movie (and not an American one). In the meantime, though, we can be seduced by Quills.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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