The eternal struggle between unbridled personal expression and society’s impulse to censor receives an engaging, if not galvanizing, airing in “Quills.” Brimming with colorful incident, juicy confrontations and layers of irony, Philip Kaufman’s intelligently boisterous screen version of Doug Wright’s successful play about the Marquis de Sade maintains a sharp focus on the notorious writer’s compulsive creativity during his long imprisonment at the Charenton asylum. At the same time, the film lacks an edge of danger or excitement that might have brought the subject alive in more than a cerebral way. A fine cast and period re-creation at the service of an intriguing subject should translate into reasonable commercial returns for this Fox Searchlight entry.
Kaufman’s first film since “Rising Sun” seven years ago sees the independent-minded director returning to the kind of sexually charged Euro material he took on in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Henry & June.” Once again, he looks at a non-conformist libertine writer in a specific historical context, here the French Revolution and the Napoleonic aftermath, during which long-established values were in great flux and the urges toward liberation and repression were simultaneously seen in their most extreme forms.
The Marquis de Sade was a provocateur par excellence, a willful affront to any civilized society and a self-consciously insidious illuminator of the darkest corners of human desire. Wright’s play and script, using historical characters in fictional ways, pit the wit, malevolence and deviousness of the Marquis against the assorted methods with which the state tries to restrain, rehabilitate and silence this supreme moral insurrectionist.
Shooting at Pinewood Studios and using a uniformly English-accented cast, Kaufman gives the squalid tale a decorous treatment that contrasts the detritus of the Revolution with the pretensions of a burgeoning new empire. Having narrowly avoided execution during the Terror, the notorious Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) is being held prisoner at the Charenton Asylum for the Insane, a relatively benign, beautifully landscaped institution where its most famous inmate enjoys the luxury of a furnished apartment, complete with a velvet-draped bed chamber and large collections of books and erotica.
Giving vent to his physical frustrations in a torrent of scabrous writing, the Marquis smuggles his prose to the outside world courtesy of a lovely young laundress, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a virginal girl fascinated by the Marquis but nonetheless unwilling to submit to his raging desires. In short order, his incendiary book “Justine” is published in Paris and achieves such notoriety that it even comes to the attention of Napoleon. In the wake of the Emperor’s disgust with “Justine,” doctor-cum-torturer Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is dispatched to Charenton to bring the Marquis into line.
Royer-Collard’s draconian methods meet resistance from Charenton’s overseer, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a liberal-minded, good-looking young priest whose progressive notions include allowing the Marquis to write and stage theatricals featuring the asylum’s assorted loonies. Temporarily thwarted from doing as he’d like with the Marquis, the aging Royer-Collard becomes distracted with the teenage bride (Amelia Warner) he snatches from a nunnery, which gives the Marquis an easy subject for a lurid, impudent new play that he stages with his subjects in attendance.
This, in turn, gives the doctor an excuse to shut down the theater and provokes Coulmier to take away the writer’s quills. But the Marquis’ compulsive scribbling can be stopped scarcely more easily than the rising of the sun, as he manages to compose, first with a wishbone and wine on his bedsheets (which are spirited out by his obliging chambermaid), then in his own blood on his clothes and, in an impressive climactic sequence, shouted to fellow inmates who methodically pass the lurid sentences along verbally to the awaiting Madeleine.
With every offense, the Marquis’ privileges are cut back; eventually, both he and his room are left entirely stripped. And the more rebellious the Marquis becomes, the more the balance of power is tipped toward Royer-Collard and his severe methods and away from Coulmier and his more humane ones.
At the same time, the internal equilibrium of these two men is being undercut by the power of the flesh, the subject on which the Marquis is the self-appointed authority. The old doctor’s nubile wife, inspired by illicit readings of “Justine,” initiates a romance with a young architect, while Coulmier’s faith is tested by Madeleine, who tries to push their emotionally intimate relationship into the physical realm. It’s not surprising that, with one incidental exception, none of these conflicts come to a favorable resolution for anyone.
Laced with lively expostulations, philosophical aphorisms and concise arguments, Wright’s script is at its best when centered on the Marquis, and Rush gives the character a full-bodied reading fueled by acid, blood and lust.
Still, the piece shies away from presenting the worst side of the author; although numerous quotations are offered from “Justine,” enough to make fully comprehensible any average person’s aversion to his views, his vicious cruelty and torturous inventions are side-stepped. In the end, this Marquis de Sade is more a depraved but witty gentleman than a truly rapacious, even murderous beast, which takes some of the edge off the dramatic parallel to Royer-Collard and, in an important sense, reduces his genuinely dangerous stature.
Written in uniformly villainous mode, the doctor emerges as a rather fuzzy figure, partly because he lurks oddly on the periphery for a considerable time but more because both Kaufman and Caine seem keen to avoid overt, easy melodrama but have developed no character subtext to give Royer-Collard some complexity or motivation; thus the doctor remains a stock figure.
As the idealistic priest, Phoenix has rather more success, as he makes clear the increasing mental and emotional torture he suffers due to prolonged exposure to the attitudes of the Marquis and the attributes of Madeleine. In the latter role, Winslet gives a lucid account of a peasant girl who manages to combine a dedication to high principles with a feisty independent streak, albeit with tragic results.
Kaufman pushes the eventful tale along at a vigorous clip, and there is nothing of the stuffy period piece about it; the surroundings and the clothes look lived in, the characters converse and relate colloquially rather than declaim (the Marquis’ postulations notwithstanding), and the bodily juices so often referred to keep any mustiness at a great remove.
Production designer Martin Childs’ interior re-creations of Charenton layer a fundamental opulence with an acquired oppressiveness, while Jacqueline West’s costumes are remarkably detailed and expressive of the characters they dress. Rogier Stoffers’ lensing leans away from standard-issue lushness and more toward period painterliness.
Stephen Warbeck’s score is supportively energetic.