The People vs. the Marquis de Sade
While the Christmas shopping season seems to get longer each year, the Christmas movie release season keeps getting denser. This effect was more pronounced this year for the appalling dry spell of quality cinema released between April and December. The sudden feast after these months of famine probably accounts for the huzzahs and cries of "sure Oscar-nod!" for this entertaining tease of a film.
Don't get me wrong; I think Geoffrey Rush's Sade surely deserves a nomination, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix make the most of their one-dimensional characters, and Michael Caine is the consummate professional in his turn as the evil Dr. Larch. Nevertheless, I was left without climax, without the sense that the characters had plumbed the depths of their desires. Quills was directed by Philip Kaufman, who brought us The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June, yet his latest work fails to contain the passion and intimacy of Sade's human animal. This film is not about longing but license.
Rather than condemn the film for not being what I thought I was promised, I'll take it on Kaufman's terms, which is to present Sade and his writing as an issue of artistic freedom, slinging arrows both at moralistic censors and at purblind defenders of free speech. Kaufman wishes to deliberately muddle the syntax of this debate, alternately showing the Napoleonic authorities as willful naïfs and amoral hypocrites, the consumers of Sade's work as repressed spirits and psychotic criminals, and Sade himself as an irrepressible genius and egotistical misanthrope. Such complexity is to be commended, especially in works adorned with the trappings of biography, but it also chastises both those who would take lascivious delight in Sade's perversions and those who would deny and oppress such feelings, which unfortunately may be the entirety of Kaufman's intent.
Kaufman explodes two contradictory myths of Sade, and believes that he is thereby doing adequate justice to a complex issue. While I am obliged to laud the dispelling of myths (especially ones as useless as those dispelled here), I am not certain that this alone is more helpful treatment of Sade's writing. Kaufman doesn't seem to fundamentally disagree with Phoenix's Father Coulmier, who dismisses Sade's Justine as "nothing more than an encyclopedia of perversions." A more penetrating (excuse the pun only if you must) investigation would try to explain why Sade's writings, as mechanistic as they are, were so popular then and now. Quills teases us with extracts, but ultimately leaves us unconsummated. ¡Átame! had more joy, and Crash had more passion.
The first myth Kaufman sets up and then knocks down is that of Sade as perverted monster, the father of modern depravity and pornography. The opening scene promised that Sade's insights into how quickly "civilized" people will slip into bestial frenzy could be depicted with both terror and humor (Winslet's voice-over at the end is the best line of the film). It also illustrated that Sade did not invent the practices which are named for him, but merely observed and reported them. Of course, Sade is the most sophisticated and civilized character in the film; Coulmier is barely competent enough to manage the asylum of Charenton, Caine's Dr. Royer-Collard is at once a caricature of the Enlightenment scientist and the corrupt bourgeois, and Napoleon has turned himself and his government into a mockery of imperial Rome and pharaonic Egypt. Sade's backstory as a multiple rapist is mentioned and then quickly dispensed with; he never has his way with the wanton Winslet, despite plenty of opportunities. This Sade, apparently, would rather scribble than screw.
The second myth is that of Sade as pornographic Prometheus, the liberator of the human spirit from a repressive society. To establish Royer-Collard's hypocrisy, he is given a convent-raised virgin bride to abuse and neglect, and who of course obtains a copy of Justine, which "raises her consciousness," prompting her to flee her husband. This small revolution, however, is not enough to justify the chaos unleashed by Sade's writing among the Parisian mobs and the Charenton inmates, the latter being depicted as directly incited to arson, rape, and murder. Kaufman's point, that art can be dangerous, is valid and worth presenting, but is undermined by the use of insane asylum inmates to show the corruptive effect of Bad Art. Surely the point would be better made with an ostensibly virtuous person?
Which brings us back to Father Coulmier. He, too, feels the urge to have his carnal way with Winslet's Madeleine, who has her own wicked ideas about the pretty priest. Coulmier contains all of Kaufman's straw men; he is the naïve tolerant liberal, the paternal moral censor, the civilized aesthete, and the repressed libidinous slave. He represents modern democratic society confronted by the primeval licentious passions represented by Sade. By film's end, we are to believe that Coulmier has been immersed in his basest desires and embraced Kaufman's interpretation of Sade's philosophy, that all humanity are beasts and that civilization is at best a hypocritical conceit. The encounter of Coulmier's that we are to accept as convincing is his consummation with the deceased Madeleine. Whether out of concern for the MPAA or out of a philosophical error, Kaufman fatally injures this scene by depicting it as a dream sequence, with Madeleine, while narratively post-mortem, awake and undecayed.
The greatest liberty that Kaufman takes with Sade's biography, of course, is to have him martyr himself over Madeleine's death. The central conflict of Quills centers on Sade continuing to publish despite being forbidden to do so by Coulmier. When Madeleine is murdered as a result of Sade's writing inciting the inmates to riot, Coulmier demands, on the strength of their mutual love for Madeleine, that Sade admit the error of his ways and cease writing. Out of despair and defiance, Sade kills himself, an act of such conviction that Coulmier's faith is destroyed. From this we are to believe, simultaneously, that Sade would die for his art and that Coulmier would prefer to spend the rest of his days with the madmen who killed Madeleine.
There is plenty to enjoy in this film, not the least of which the "lubricating" dialogue. However, by exploring the First Amendment instead of the Second Circle, Kaufman disappoints anyone interested in learning more about Sade, understanding cruelty, or simply getting off.
Copyright © 2000 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.