by Jon Bastian
Marquee power can’t bail out this Marquis as excellent performances and direction get whipped.
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A noble pedigree does not guarantee a charmed existence — just ask the Marquis de Sade, who was born at the top and worked his way down, spending large chunks of his life in prison, ultimately dying in an insane asylum. Likewise, the de Sade inspired Quills comes from the noble background of the theatre, with an amazing use of language, a talented cast, a skilled director and an amazing look, but ultimately it just falls flat. It’s a shame, because so much of the film is so watchable. We begin with an image that appears to be one thing, but turns out to be quite the opposite, and much of the film plays emotional cat and mouse with the viewer. It’s hard not to with such a compelling concept: the Marquis de Sade is progressively punished for his depravity, literally stripped of the means of creating his writing, while the outside world is far more depraved than anything coming from his quill. We’re given a man compelled to create, to create reflections of a sick society, while that society hypocritically drools over and condemns his work — and him. Promising, and yet Quills never pays off.
It took me a while to figure out exactly how the film goes wrong. Ultimately, the story lacks focus. It should be all about de Sade, but we spend more time with peripheral characters. Now, I’m not sure whether to blame Doug Wright, who adapted the screenplay from his stage play, or to blame producer and studio meddling, but the trouble occurs in every attempt to “open” the play up; that is, expand it beyond the world of one setting. As a result, the film isn’t about any one thing and certainly doesn’t stay on de Sade. We get something about the power of words, I think, or maybe it’s the dual good and evil nature of mankind, maybe, or the hypocrisy of oppressive societies, possibly. This also leads to a glaring historical error that I don’t think was in the original, as de Sade smuggles out and has published his novel Justine a good decade or more after it actually first appeared. Worse, it misleads us dramatically regarding whom the story is about and when it suddenly becomes obvious late in the game that we’ve been following the wrong character, it undercuts everything that comes before. Watching Quills is like taking a long, fascinating trip on a wonderfully decorated train only to get off at an empty station in the middle of the desert. The ride is much better than the destination.
That sounds harsh, but the more ambitious a work is, the higher a standard I hold it to, and in theory Quills sounds like a knockout premise. The Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is locked up at the asylum at Charenton, relying on a chambermaid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet) to smuggle his naughty manuscripts to the outside world, where they are unleashed on an audience hungry for salacious entertainment. When the Emperor Napoleon (Ron Cook) is greatly offended by de Sade’s anonymous latest, Justine, he orders the man shot. Cooler heads prevail, and instead a famous alienist, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is sent to Charenton to see that the young abbé in charge, Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a better handle on his famous patient. Coulmier attempts to use a plea to virtue on this notorious libertine, but de Sade cannot resist the opportunity to attempt to publicly humiliate Royer-Collard with a bit of satirical theatre. Bit by bit, the instruments of de Sade’s writing are taken away — ink, paper, the furniture, everything, until he is nothing but a naked old man alone in a stone cell, bereft of his beloved quills.
Theatre and film have visited Charenton before. In fact, my favorite title of all time is that of Peter Weiss’s play (and movie musical), The persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. (It’s a great pick-up line all by itself, as in, “Have you ever seen…”) Weiss’s work was a bold piece of 60’s theatre-of-cruelty agitprop, bludgeoning its audience by making them the literal witnesses of de Sade’s work. Quills is much more subtle in its tone, but sometimes that can be a bad thing, as it is here, when we’ve been through the entire two hours plus only to realize that there’s been no point made.
The trouble is, through the first two thirds of the movie, De Sade and Coulmier are relegated to supporting roles. It seems like an afterthought when the conflict between the priest and the sadist finally plays out, and then one of Coulmier’s actions (and his final fate) ring so false that they’re unbelievable. In fact, the last scenes of the movie drag, trying to wrap everything up with a ribbon, heavy on the irony, all of it forced.
It’s a shame, because everybody involved puts so much into the project. Geoffrey Rush is astounding as the Marquis, projecting a miasma of emotional danger as the reptilian and dissolute Marquis, but he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Joaquin Phoenix is quickly distinguishing himself as the most talented member of his family, giving a subtle and nuanced performance as a good man stretched beyond the limits of his beliefs. Michael Caine is hissably nasty, underplaying a wonderfully evil bastard who is absolutely aware of his own villainy and doesn’t give a rat’s ass. Kate Winslet is, well, far too sharp to be believable as a chambermaid in a mad house, but she does bring the proper humor and pathos to the role. A real standout is Amelia Warner, who gives us a portrait of innocence first abused and then awakened, as the (too) young wife of Royer-Collard who finds an escape from her loveless marriage in the pages of de Sade and the arms of a hunky young architect (Stephen Moyer) hired to spruce up the old homestead.
And that Justine error still bothers me. The mistake here is tantamount to doing a biopic of Thomas Jefferson showing him writing the Declaration of Independence after he becomes president. Beyond that, I’m not sure Justine is the best thematic choice, being as it is about a virtuous woman corrupted and degraded sexually. The sequel, Juliette, would have played better, being about a corrupted and evil woman who loves being that way. Compounding the error, de Sade didn’t die until 1814, not long ere Napoleon saw Elba, but it’s quite obvious that the filmmakers intended the action to take place over a very short time. This is a very sloppy error, about as sloppy as the dramatic through-line of Quills itself.
I don’t know who said it, but the line, “When you take aim at a hero, you’d better kill him,” can be made to apply very well here: “When you make a film about a cultural icon (which de Sade arguably is) you better give us what we expect.” We only get little glimpses of what might have been here — Geoffrey Rush could easily do a one-man show as de Sade. Yes, there’s sexual depravity and sadism and immorality and statements about good and evil and art, but they’re all a mishmosh serving no unified purpose. At least de Sade had a philosophy to espouse. Maybe he was just a wee bit obsessed with sex in all its turgid excess. But that’s better than Quills, which wants to dramatically bugger us into next Tuesday, but only leaves us sleeping in the wet spot.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter working in the TV trade.
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