Quills (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
|The last years of the infamous Marquis de Sade, times and a character larger than life, set as they were in a madhouse, have supplied the grist for many theatrical and cinematic mills. On stage, "Marat/Sade" explored the situation a generation ago, and Doug Wright's recent play, "Quills", reflected a bit more on the infamous aristocrat. This film is the Wright's own adaptation of his play into a screenplay.|
|De Sade, of
course, is the man for who the word "sadism" is named,
and was a genuinely bad dude. Although the stage and
screen bios tend to try to find some grounds for
sympathy, it is not easy to justify. The man was a
monster. He once wrote that a superior man like
himself had the right to take the lives of peasants
for his own pleasure. The man was also a genuine
nutcase with no governors on his behavior. Even in his
darkest hours, he turned his back on everyone who
offered him kindness. I suppose one must admire his
consistency and his uncompromised principles, but he
probably fell over that line between genius and
Way over it.
While it is true that he was held in prison at times because his writings were politically incorrect, we're not talking about Thoreau here, a poor martyr jailed only for following his noble principles. The fact of the matter is that de Sade's principles were pretty damned loony.
injustice of Sade's imprisonments is questionable.
Although he was imprisoned before the revolution for
14 years, without a trial, all at the hands of a
vengeful mother-in-law, stating those facts without
the nuances tends to whitewash the case. It was to his
advantage that the trial was never held. If he had a
trial he might have been executed. He kidnapped and
tortured a teenaged girl for days, then showed off her
scars to his friends. As I said, he wasn't Thoreau.
Oh, yeah, his mother-in-law was difficult, and he had
a troubled childhood, but spare me the sympathy
Of course among the rich and powerful, there were plenty of loonier men who didn't get locked up. Napoleon, for one. The law in those days didn't usually apply equally to the very privileged. Anatole France once wrote that the law, in its great equanimity, forbids the rich as well as the poor to steal bread to feed their families. So a powerful man in those days could have done a lot of crazy things and still roamed the streets free, as De Sade himself did for many years. But in his case the incarceration served the desire of the state to shut him up.
De Sade was originally freed by the revolutionaries because he had used his poison pen against the anti-revolutionaries. When he turned his sharp tongue to the revolutionaries, thence to Napoleon ....
Well, the question in the hands of the state was how to keep this putatively dangerous and corrupt man from spewing more of his corruption into society. Locking him away in the nuthatch at Charenton seemed like the best way to keep him from turning his vitriol against Napoleon, and the men in power and their wives. In addition, his works were genuinely offensive to many, including the Emperor. That was a reasonably liberal time, but there has never been a time so liberal in which the Marquis would be considered a normal guy, or in which people would like his works to fall into the hands of their children.
Of course, there was a tremendous irony that a society which declared that a horny writer needed to be locked up, simultaneously considered Napoleon fit to rule all of Europe, but it was a crazy era back then, at the end of the time of kings, and the birthing of a new world had its labor pains. Still, you have to think that De Sade probably wasn't nutty enough to invade Russia, so France would probably have been better off if the two had changed positions. And it certainly would have been more fun that way.
It turns out that, according to this movie's version of the story, the Marquis would do anything to write. First he used smuggled paper and quills, but they took away his paper. Then he wrote on his sheets, so they removed them. Then he wrote on his clothing with his own blood, so he had to sit naked. Then he set up a "pass it on" system where the prisoners would whisper to adjoining cells until somebody with a quill could hear it, so they ripped out his tongue. Then he wrote with his own shit on the cell walls.
And that is the essence of the story: De Sade's attempt to publish his works, and Napoleon's attempts to suppress them. The thrust of the story is not unlike a 200 year old version of "People vs Flynt", testing our belief in free speech by seeing if it we will extend it to the least desirable speaker, and giving us no really sympathetic character to identify with.
The strongest aspects of the film are the intelligence of the script, and the completely believable portrayal of de Sade by that uncanny actor, Geoffrey Rush, who negotiates the fine line between genius and insanity as carefully as he navigates between charm and monstrosity.
The weakest aspect is the fact that it is essentially a stage play and is not especially cinematic. Director Philip Kaufman tries to compensate with some frenetic pacing and a generally artistic presentation of lighting and blocking, but let's face it, it's still just like watching a stage play.
The other main weakness is emotional identification. We can see that the Michael Caine character, de Sade's nemesis, is detestable, but are we therefore supposed to identify with the Marquis de Sade? Really? Hell, I don't know. That's a stretch for me. That's like saying I should really like Hitler because Stalin was his mortal enemy. So I really didn't care what happened to any of the characters. By the way, Kaufman said that the Michael Caine character was based on Ken Starr. Well, I have the same reaction there. If I don't like Ken Starr does that mean that everything Clinton did was OK? People always say that the ends don't justify the means, but I've never seen the sense in that adage. There are cases where extremely good ends can justify bad means, aren't there? I just couldn't work up any real contempt for Caine, or any real sympathy with Sade. It's tough going, to hang on to a movie with just your brain, when it deliberately doesn't engage your heart.
The final weakness is that it really has nothing at all to do with the real Marquis de Sade. Some of these events happened in Sade's life, but not many, and even the real events have been romanticized or distorted. Other situations are fabrications which occasionally stray to a point about as far from the truth as possible. Here is a great link. This is a review of the film written by a De Sade scholar. His home page also has an excellent DeSade biography and bibliography.
And, in the final analysis, what does it all mean? Not so very much, I think. It isn't really about free speech or artistic license. I don't know what I took away from it.I am frankly surprised that the movie was so well received by critics
I'm a great admirer of Kaufman, and many of the cast members, and there is really some great showmanship on display here, but when it was all over I felt that I had watched a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
In fairness, I am in the minority. Many picked it in their top 10 lists for 2000, but I think it is some good moviemaking without being an especially appealing movie.
Tuna's comments in yellow
(2000). Whenever Scoopy and I disagree on a film, it
is an event for me. This is one of those films.
First for the areas of agreement.
My objections aren't related to the quality of the film, but to the integrity of the project. It is an interesting film about something, but that something is not the Marquis de Sade. The character of De Sade in the film had nothing to do with the real De Sade. Of course, this doesn't make the film better or worse. You can't say that a film is suddenly genius because you change a character name from De Sade to De Nucci.
So this doesn't affect
the quality of the film, but I don't like a
treatment which makes the Marquis seem like a poor
misunderstood romantic figure, a tall and proud
patriot and defender of free speech, instead of the
short, fat, pervert he was, a man who died in his
seventies, his obese body fully dressed, with his
tongue intact, in the arms of a teenage girl.
Tuna noted: "I was fascinated by the Winslet character, who was the proof that enjoyment of pornography doesn't make you lewd (she died a virgin)." Yes, that was the film's point. Unfortunately, it was a lie. In real life the Marquis had many sexual dalliances with the chambermaid of his quarters, more than 50, starting when she was 13 years old, all faithfully recorded in his diaries. I suppose this proves that the enjoyment of pornography does make you lewd. Or not.
The Abbe, played by Phoenix, was actually a hunchbacked dwarf, or as he would be called today, a posture-impaired and vertically challenged American. If he were around today, he'd get some really good parking spaces.
Winslet, by the way, almost single handedly made this film happen. The studio wanted her. She wanted this script, so it got green-lighted based on her agreement to take what is a fairly small part by her standards. Unfortunately, the film only took in seven million dollars, but the finances could have gone a different way with an Oscar nod.
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