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'Quills' Has a Point for Today's World

The movie about the Marquis de Sade means to underscore the ongoing struggle between expression and repression.

November 27, 2000|JUSTIN DAVIDSON | NEWSDAY

"Quills," Philip Kaufman's new movie about the Marquis de Sade, is a parable masquerading as a costume drama. Set in Napoleonic France but directed at Clintonian America, the film tackles an issue that leaped to the foreground of the recent presidential campaign: how to calculate the social effect of sex and violence in popular entertainment.

"Quills" treats the last of the marquis' 27 years in captivity with a scenario that seems like an experiment in Hollywood hybridization. The valiant pornographer from "The People vs. Larry Flynt" inhabits the madhouse setting of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." The marquis, a sane but deviant fop (Geoffrey Rush), languishes luxuriously in the asylum of Charenton, publishing underground smut from his cell. A copy of his obscene vampire romance "Justine" somehow finds its way to Napoleon, who dispatches the ferocious luminary Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to silence the marquis' writing and straighten his twisted mind.

Rush's marquis belies the character's ghoulish reputation. Untroubled by the distorting burdens of civilized behavior, he wanders around in shabby finery and a dusty wig, consumed by earthy instinct. He is nothing but a grandly crude aristocrat, a good-natured virtuoso of vulgarity, more Howard Stern than Grand Guignol.

Caine's Royer-Collard, on the other hand, turns out to be a less literary but more literal sadist than his patient. His preferred form of therapy is to strap patients into a chair that flips them backward into a pool of ice water. He embodies a sanctimonious, bureaucratic sort of evil, bent on eradicating any threatening and destabilizing behavior.

For all the meticulous attention to Empire detail, however, make no mistake: This is a movie about the present. The marquis' outrageous novels stand in for all the gangsta rap, performance pieces and dung-encrusted canvases that ever offended a righteous politician. Kaufman has said that he thought of Royer-Collard as a Kenneth Starr-type inquisitor, which would, I suppose, make the marquis an early 19th century Bill Clinton, the seductive embodiment of a period's collective carnality. The analogy begins to stumble almost immediately, though, for the simple reason that high-minded intolerance just isn't what it used to be. Indicting one period with evidence from another does not make for a terribly convincing case.

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A latter-day marquis might, in some parts, be ostracized or fined or even forced out of business, but he would hardly be committed. Today, his arch and wordy scenes of violent sex would be included in collections of "Best Erotica" and sold at Barnes and Noble. Napoleonic France provides a better template for a tale of censorship and repression. Totalitarian and moralistic, the setting also offers the advantage of a hypocritical society, one that willingly suffered through the revolutionary years of terror but which flinches at a little fictional pain.

With directorial sleight of hand, Kaufman merges the contest of French philosophies in the early 19th century--enlightenment, rationalism, sensual romanticism, absolutism--with the early 21st century notion of writing as therapy. At some point during the film, the marquis' gothic sexual fantasies metamorphose from pornography into art. That's because what's important to Kaufman is not what the marquis wrote, but his overpowering need to write. In today's sugary, Oprah-tic terms, his compulsion, not his talent, entitles him to honor. He pens comic-book vindictive fantasies? Well, he has Issues that need to be Worked Out. His prose is overripe and rococo? Ah, but he has Feelings he must Express.

Curiously, the excerpts from the marquis' writings that Doug Wright's script doles out are actually quite tame. The language is replete with elaborate euphemisms such as "Venus mound" and "pikestaff," and the subject matter ranges no further than some rather laughable perversions. Kaufman has his R rating to protect, of course, but choosing more genuinely scabrous excerpts might also nudge the audience out of sympathy with the marquis.

In the film, neither the marquis nor his books injure anyone (except for the pride of the long-suffering marquise)--until the emperor decides to quash his writing, beginning a chain of events that leads to blazing cataclysm. The marquis, locked in solitary confinement, deprived of paper and quills, narrates his final story through a chink in the wall. His fellow inmates--a stereotyped collection of droolers, mutterers and brutes--whisper his gruesome tale from cell to cell, until it finally reaches the marquis' amanuensis, the newly literate chambermaid Madeleine (Kate Winslet). With each new detail, the lunatic messengers become progressively more inflamed.

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