Quills (Dir. Philip Kaufman, 2000)
“Facts and Fabulous Fallacies: Another (Per)Version of Sadeian Myth.”
By David Gilmour.
Some critics might rail against Philip Kauffman’s film Quills because it skirts the historical truth. Fair enough. Important criticism of historical films can jog one’s thoughts to take a deeper look at what happened in history. Films of all kinds need serious discussion — by all means, let’s dig deeper to criticize them, to find connections, to make comparisons. Applying critical attention, the scholarly viewer enhanced my appreciation of the Quills’ content by pointing out what the writer or director took liberties with. Furthermore, scholarly insights might reveal subtle motifs and thematic patterns that were generally overlooked by popular reviewers as serious intentional elements of the writers and directors. If we don’t have outlets for serious speculation about content and meaning of film, film criticism will decline into the popular plot and likeability ratings of hometown entertainment guides. At Borders the other day, though rushed for time, I stood for a half hour reading Film Comment, captured by its vivid writing styles and perspectives. After purchasing several list-priced purchases, I just wished that magazine weren’t so pricey. Now I’m prepared to spend more time in out downtown library to read the available copies from recent issues of both Film Comment and Film Quarterly.
Interest in the film Quills was for me both in and out of the film’s content and genre and privately a concern to know more about what the Marquis de Sade wrote. The serious critic has infected my curiosity. Kaufman’s film, through the ingenious dramatic pastiche of scriptwriter Doug Wright, presents us with the Marquis de Sade as a man tormented into exercising the most outrageous freedoms his imagination could devise. This accounts very well with de Sade’s own explanation of the liberating force of incarceration. Quills’ de Sade is an enjoyable political and social nuisance: a pompous, satirically comic, acutely witty malcontent. Much credit goes to Geoffrey Rush’s glorying in rational and irrational histrionics, playing the role with an acidulous spirit of civil disobedience. The super-audacious cockerel de Sade, ponce-ing about agile as a dancer in his prison cell, is admittedly a fictional characterization. Scriptwriter Wright says it plainly in the DVD’s Features and Commentary. Of course, most movie audiences aren’t after a filmic dissertation, but there is much that rings true in Kaufmann and Wright’s interpretation of this spirited character. Quills is 20th /21st century Hollywood moviemaking, not the academy of political correctness. In no way can one consider the story or the characters of Quills representative of the life of the infamous Marquis de Sade. It’s perhaps sensible to understand that.
Serious as it is in theme, Quills can be viewed as farcical drama. In such fictions, one should not expect verisimilitude. This is not a bio-pic. Little is known about de Sade’s parents, especially his mother; hardly anything is known about his early life as a child and adolescent, so his biography is a story without a narrative beginning. Not only the females in his life, meek or bold, but especially the mother figure surely affected de Sade’s mental and emotional development during early and juvenile years. Covering the last decades of de Sade’s life, in matters of chronology, both regarding de Sade’s writings and the places of his imprisonment, the film plays fast and loose. Nevertheless, it asserts by its portrayal the dignity of de Sade. Many unjustly incarcerated characters in history and fiction have discovered likewise their integrity because of unjust isolation and torture Imprisonment is a spur to recognizing one’s strengths and a liberalizing force to execution of them. In film The Fixer comes the mind, from Malamud’s novel (1968 film by John Frankenheimer); Robert Stroud, The Birdman of Alcatraz (another Frankenheimer film, 1962); Meursault of Camus’s The Stranger (Luchino Visconti Lo Straniero,1967). Quills’ Marquis has basically such a mythic pattern: the unjust criminalizing of a radical curiosity whose thought and actions under duress grow larger and more meaningful for greater self-knowledge. De Sade is a banned artist, an expounder of sublime evil and negation, an atheistic, moral-philosophical pornographer. Essays and historical commentaries of de Sade’s life and works have continued to issue forth from publishing houses and universities with great frequency of late.2 Really! A race is on to set the record straight about what kind of god or monster the irascible Marquis was and what he purposed in his grotesque literary output. Lively arguments are on-going, full of feeling as well as intellect.
The Marquis de Sade is a perfect topic for the post-modern deconstructionist scholars: sub-textual analysis of modern eroticism in the guise of scholarship of an old geezer’s iconoclastic fictional literature. One might think his ideas and plays are arcane poppycock, but actually his message needs recognition and exposure in our cramped-up politically correct society. The illusion of Quills does draw the viewer in to feel somewhat with the characters; however the emphasis is on matters of the spirit, mean and vehement at times. The actors’ sensual emotions are quite muted and modest given the subject matter.
Just as no one sees the same movie as others because of the biases we carry within us, many commentators of “The Life of Marquis de Sade” are intrigued or titillated by different biases to straighten up the crooked fallacies about him that relegated his works to libraries’ netherworld, the banned books in padlocked cages. In our time (late 1990s to 2007) when an American President can be impeachable for a blow-job by a wenchy assistant, can it be any wonder journalists and writers would not think it timely to expose the true horrors of the lubricious playwright and novelist Comte Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade (1740-1814). Asked by friends why I’m “wasting” my time on this crusty old wanker of a scribbler, I reply that I’m tired of accepting the popular figures we are brainwashed to admire by our cultural media and elites. Lately, I have an interest in personages whom our authorities have damned and demonized. One or two of them I’m sure I can come to appreciate. In happening upon de Sade, I found a choice figure, a study of an unhappy, angry man, struggling to express ideas of most scandalous human freedoms.
Besides the output of literary commentators and analysts, filmmakers have been having an orgy through the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st representing the life and works of de Sade: Le Vice et la Virtu (Roger Vadim, 1963); La Voie Lactée (Louis Buňuel, 1969); De Sade (Cy Enfield, 1971); Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade (Peter Brook, 1973); Salo (Paolo Pasolini, 1975); Marquis (R. Topor and H. Xhonneux, 1988); Sade (Benoit Jacquot, 2000). The surrealists Antonin Artaud, Louis Buňuel, and Salvador Dali (L’Âge d’or, 1930) had a blast playing with the phallus and the fallacy, contrasting quims and quills, some of their works farcical, some sophisticated drama, some seminal, polluted with fictions or fundamentally up-yours Dadaism.
Because we live in an age of extremism — the War on Terror(ism), the excesses of Islamic fundamentalism and Christian Evangelical fascism, with their anti-this and anti-that perversions of common sense — the works of de Sade need to be brought to readers’ and viewers’ attentions. The Marquis was exposing the absurdities of social and political hypocrisy, of morality, and of cultural denial of torture and erotic perversions or, at least, fantasies of them. Many Americans are beginning to face the culture of death and torture we routinely practice and enjoy in banal erotic ways, through media exposure, especially in our public entertainments and possibly in some of our private lives. We no longer doubt that powerful leaders lie, cheat, and kill. High church dignitaries in the preserves of sanctified places have been exposed as craven. The media exposure of the Catholic Church’s complicity in practicing and concealing the Sadeian pleasure reality of paraphilias is an obvious reason for resurrecting the Marquis from the mythic grave. Some will shrug shoulders: Has it ever been different? Not really, but the recognition of one’s apathy because of the acceptance of repeated savagery and denial of human worth is yet to be fully accepted as a direct corollary of mind-controlling moral systems and God’s justice at work. De Sade’s philosophy of an invented God’s criminality and our imitation of Him have yet to be grasped. We just go on tut-tutting about evil as we open every morning’s papers.
De Sade is a deadly serious subject. If the stories of de Sade and his writing continue to be presented only as entertainment, we merely continue to perpetuate the shoddy myths. Quills as moral fiction has dignity. It is time to avoid the Sadeian narratives that have mostly been so perversely pejorative that, according to the authorities, one must ban or burn them, or turn a blind eye to their motivation and meaning. For the first hundred years after his death, the works of de Sade had been hidden away for their priceless arcane rarity and for fear of their burnability as “awesome” pornography. . By admission, 19th century writers — Swinburne, Apollinaire, Baudelaire — read, consulted and praised his writings, clamoring for their acceptance as significant literature. Then, in the 20th century, the letters and printed copies began to appear at auctions and special libraries; new, presentable editions and translations have been appearing throughout the past fifty years. The first purchasable copy I received was considered at the time a prestigious English edition (The Grove Press, 1965) of de Sade’s works scandalously neglected in the century prior. Their revival would not have occurred had there been no demand for or profit from the scurrilous pornographic or violently sexual works. Jean Paulhan’s famous apology for de Sade introduces the daring Grove publication.3 After a period of wicked political censorship called “correctness” from the 1980s and 90s, it is most timely that Quills and other filmed Sadeian representations should appear. They are sanely absurd works of art for our insanely absurd proper societies; in fact, they are farces for some of us who do not object to moral pornography. Amidst the bloodbath and torture of our world at wars, a little frigging farce is not going to alarm the modern zombie who chooses to peek between the sheets at what the plays, letters and novels expose for edification. Tedious as some of de Sade’s works are, they are not as boring as “re-reading” copies of Playboy and Hugh Hefner’s philosophy.
Quills, Kaufman/Wright’s modern myth, merely fills a crack or two to set the record straight for those nominally informed about the French antiheroic author. Fiction, fantasy or myth-film, as Quills is, compounded psychologically as a visual narrative record seen differently by each head of eyes, will prove to be only another version of a larger, more extensive mythical narrative. For the whole story it’s up to each of us to dig deeper. A once widely-accepted definition of a myth is a detailed collection and analysis of all versions of a story or myth as they are wrapped into a symbol-laden, mystical whole. Structuralist Claude Levi-Strauss (in his monumental Mythologiques: the Science of Mythology)4 asserted that one who studies a myth should look at every version of it to get the big picture. Though he was thinking of an oral culture, he would not have been averse to filmic, painted, photographic or musical versions in regards to arriving at the web of forms and meanings of a Myth-in-toto. What we get in the film Quills is bricolage, an assemblage of pieces of the puzzle that come to mind. Each kaleidoscopic mind of us gets an arrangement of bits and pieces of a myth, a slice of the spice of what the Marquis de Sade suffered to be an artist in his time—and a very terrible time it was.
One great virtue of the film is its clear linear narrative, which sets it apart from a predilection in 21st century film productions. Because of its X-rated subject, as in Philip Kaufmann’s earlier NC-17 work, Henry and June, no pretension is made by director or writer to make Quills’ sequences suited to the tastes of TV watchers, used as they are to being jerked around with snappy, artsy editing and frequent interruptions. Many films these days, in my view, suffer from artificial complexification, especially back-to-front editing through flashes forward and backward, creating a mental whiplash, wearing the audience out. Movies of this sort, such as 2007’s La Vie en Rose (a horrible indulgence) and Into the Wild (respectable but over-wrought), seem extended far beyond their narrative potential, as though the story told chronologically straight could not be accepted as profound. Covering the last years of the18th century and the opening of the 19th century till 1814, Quills details approximately two decades in the life of a literary terrorist, who, being deprived of the light of freedom, was still able smuggle out manuscripts to set off literary bombs which disrupted the sense of control wielded in powers elite. De Sade’s publications rankled the confidence of controlling authorities. As marks of their literary power, the bombs still echo disruptively in our own age. De Sade lived during the French Reign of Terror and his works have survived to have resounding, blasting reports for our Age of Terrorism.
Quills was prophetic in its timing. It treats us to a historical comi-tragedy about the indomitable spirit of an artist, the Marquis de Sade as writer. Geoffrey Rush’s Marquis is a despicable, insufferable (t)wit, who exhibits nothing but spite for anyone who exhibits the slightest trait of superiority or authority, no matter how mildly supercilious, charming or charitable that person may be. He is a bubble pricker of the first order. Even his wife (a small role played by Rush’s real-life wife, Jane Menelaus), who seems loving and charitable in service to her incarcerated husband, bringing him the jade dildos and brass butt-plugs he designed and ordered, earns no respect. She gets a severe chewing-out and neck-wringing for her insipidity and impotence in allowing her family to keep him locked up. Madeleine Le Clerc (Kate Winslet), the laundry maid responsible for smuggling his manuscripts to the printers, receives snarls and tongue-lashings for the slightest delay or reluctance in satisfying requests that could endanger her and her mother’s employment. De Sade is not likeable, not nice at all. Nevertheless, his irascibility comes from frustration at being unjustly incarcerated and from impatience to apprise the world that there are transporting erotic pleasures of the flesh beyond bull-fights, gladiatorial combats, and public head-lopping. It’s not taking heads but “giving head” that he expounds. He wants to illustrate not just sexual acts but erotic sexual pains and pleasures. For de Sade, the sexual organs that authorities would like us to consider useful for procreation but little else, are wonderfully untapped resources. Not an astounding idea, really, but one that seemed to have been a best-kept secret to general society two centuries ago. Didactically, he named the sexual parts; he illustrated masturbatory techniques for male and female; he spoke of the importance of glans, prepuce, labia and clitoris; and educated readers about the available orifices of pleasure, and even unavailable ones. He can teach us much as Octavio Paz wrote in his poem “The Prisoner”:
The erudite and the poet,
the sage, the man of letters, the lover
the maniac and the dreamer of the destruction
of our sinister reality
bicker like dogs over the bones of your work.
You, who stood against them all,
have become a name, a leader, a banner.
Leaning over life like Saturn over his children,
you examine, with a fixed and loving eye,
the furrows of ash left by semen, blood, and lava.
The bodies, facing each other like wild stars,
are made of the same stuff as the suns.
We call it love or death, freedom or fate,
but is it not catastrophe, is it not the hecatomb?
Where are the borders between spasm and earthquake,
eruption and copulation?5
Though caught up in a strangely romantic mood for a period of time, absorbed in finding a great deal of important and overlooked thought in de Sade, I’m not unlike many others who detect something wondrously horrible and awesomely evil in the anti-ethical philosophy of his works. Some claim he is a great poetic writer, an artistic stylist;6 poets (Guillaume Apollinaire and other surrealists) and some post-modern philosophers (Georges Bataille, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault) hailed de Sade as a iconoclastic angel of freedom and artistic revolt. Many detractors point out the pernicious effects of de Sade’s works, the moral nihilism in his philosophy of isolationism, man’s detachment from virtue.7 Certainly the claims can be made about possible deleterious psychological effects of Sadeian pornography as for habitual obsessions with the Penny Dreadful horror comics, triple-X videos and violent video games. Roger Shattuck’s conclusion is exemplary caution:
The divine marquis [sic] represents forbidden knowledge that we may not forbid. Consequently, we should label his writings carefully: potential poison, polluting to our moral and intellectual environment.8
Does Kaufman’s film encourage viewers to become libertine, immoral, godless and criminal? Who can tell? There is danger in feeling that pain is the way to pleasure, that cruel treatment of a victim is enjoyable, that objectification of women or men is a tolerably moral exercise in erotic freedom. De Sade was quite open to express that evil is the absolute principle at work in the real world. For him, Nature justifies all crimes and sexual desire takes priority over reason.
The chaos and irony of moral and immoral behavior are represented throughout Quills. We are shown the madness and erotic consequences of de Sade’s stories on his followers in Charenton when the youths play salaciously in idle threesomes as they listen to Justine read aloud, when the pyromaniac is given criminal liberty, when the addled former executioner, now an inmate of the asylum, takes vengeance on the weaker Madeleine as he had formerly experienced ultimate control when dispatching nobles at the guillotine. Quills clearly represents the dangers of torture and cruelty in the actions of de Sade, the prison inmates, and in the authorities. To be sure, Quills does not glorify de Sade’s philosophy of negation and crime. What is foremost is anti-heroic spite and cynicism of an oppressed artist, who, even after he suffered the instruments of torture, did not desist from expressing his ideas. Psychologically and philosophically, de Sade is a strange creature who cannot fail to fascinate. However much he reveals insights into human nature, everything he wrote needs questioning, criticizing, and re-evaluating. Quills gives us another chance to do that with some safety from utter revulsion.
Finally, imagine a strict adherence to details of the final days of de Sade. If de Sade had been represented as the grossly obese dumpling he became in his final years, Geoffrey Rush would have become inert, laden with Elephant Man prostheses, quite unable to wriggle about his cell to write in feces his last epistolary insult to decency. Except with assistance, he would have been unable to unlash his breeches or even to reach his own membrum virile. That would have made a pathetically sad conclusion. The torture scene neatly raised the narrative climax. Following that, his swallowing and choking on Abbe du Coulmier’s (Joaquin Phoenix) cross made his end a spiteful triumph. In Quills’ resolution, Wright and Kaufmann created a sexual fantasy and a supreme literary irony well suited to the pornographic excesses and intellectual cynicism one can find in de Sade’s own works.
Le Marquis est mort. Vive le Marquis!
1 The Guardian “Books” reviewer Neil Schaeffer (January 13, 2001). Thanks to Peter Farnum for this link. http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/biography/story/0,,421539,00.html
2 D. Thomas, The Marquis de Sade ( London: Allison and Busby, 19992); M.Lever, Marquis de Sade: A Biography, tr. by A. Goldhammer (London: HarperCollins, 1993); L.L. Bongie, Sade: A Biographical Essay (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998); F. du Plessix-Gray, At Home with the Marquis de Sade (New York: Penguin, 1999); N. Schaeffer, The Marquis de Sade: A Life (London: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd., 1999); J. Phillips, The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005).
3 Preface to the second edition of Les Infortunes de la Vertu, 1946.
4 The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology. V.1. New York: Harper and Row, 1969).
5 An Erotic Beyond: Sade, translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1998), 4-5.
6 Jean-Jacques Pauvert, Paris publisher of de Sade’s works (1957); Annie Le Brun, Sade: A Sudden Abyss (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1991); Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997); Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New York: Vintage Books, 1991).
7 Simone de Beauvoir, “Must We Burn Sade,” translated by Annette Michelson (London & New York: Neville, 1953); Octavio Paz (as above); Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).
8 Ibid., 229.