The return of the Marquis de Sade

Philip Kaufman's new "Quills" pits the Marquis de Sade against Kenneth Starr in Napoleonic drag.

Published July 27, 2000 6:22PM (EDT)

In 1995, Doug Wright wrote "Quills" for the stage and won an Obie for it. It was a brainy piece of Grand Guignol about the Marquis de Sade's stay at the Charenton insane asylum. The scintillating and sanguinary movie version, directed by Philip Kaufman and due out in November, expands and puts a bloom on the play -- just as Kaufman did with Tom Wolfe's nonfiction "The Right Stuff," Milan Kundera's novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," the Anaos Nin journals collected as "Henry & June" and Michael Crichton's thriller "Rising Sun."

This time, Kaufman has come up with a tragicomedy of terrors that would have done Spanish director Luis Buquel proud -- yet with a muscular narrative that should win over the wide audience that Buquel never reached. "Quills" is no more a "biopic" or a period piece than was "Shakespeare in Love." Indeed, when the film opens this fall, Fox Searchlight should promote it as "Shakespeare in Love" meets "The Silence of the Lambs."

Wright centered his play on a handful of figures from history: the marquis, a wily bugger of epic proportions as well as an indefatigable writer; his friends, the insouciant laundress Madeleine Leclerc and the open-minded Abbe de Coulmier, who ran Charenton as a progressive, flexible institution; and Dr. Royer-Collard, the asylum's chief physician. The film follows Royer-Collard's cunning and vicious crackdown on the abbe's humanitarianism and Sade's creativity. But the events are largely fictional: For example, in the film Madeleine is a virgin -- but in reality the marquis paid for her sexual favors, with her mother's approval!

In the play, Wright reshaped their life stories into a Shavian burlesque outfitted with razors. And under Kaufman's guidance, his screenplay goes even further. Wright left Sade's asylum theatricals out of the play -- one assumes to stave off comparisons to the celebrated 1965 play, "Marat/Sade." It's hard to figure out why else Wright would have ignored the one time in Sade's life when the frustrated dramatist, as biographer Maurice Lever put it, "fully experienced the joy of theatrical illusion. An asylum, a makeshift stage, an audience of madmen and voyeurs, a cast of lunatics: The essence of the theater restored at last."

Freeing itself from real or imagined stage constraints, the movie deploys vivid period details to shock us into recognition. The scene of Royer-Collard's bleak wedding night with his convent-bred child bride echoes a description quoted in Lever's "Sade" of normal 18th-century nuptials: "The gentleman, all aflame, brutally asserts his rights, asks nothing, but demands a great deal." It's one of many ways that Kaufman and Wright suggest how a sex-crazed provocateur like Sade can illuminate the cruelties common even in proper society.

The film's kaleidoscopic sweep belies the material's stage and literary origins. With Wright's brilliant revision of his play, Kaufman has created a protean Gothic shocker: sensual, witty, touching and, ultimately, jolting.

Geoffrey Rush heads Kaufman's cast as the marquis, with Kate Winslet as Madeleine and Joaquin Phoenix as the super-ethical, liberal abbe, whose City of God becomes a suburb of hell when his new overseer -- Michael Caine as Royer-Collard -- tangles with him over the privileges of inmate Sade. The marquis adorns his cell with erotic toys and aristo comforts; he highhandedly directs the inmates in escapist extravaganzas that abruptly turn dead serious. But what seals his fate is his determination to write profane fantasies and smuggle them to the outside world. Royer-Collard strives to squelch Sade under the orders of Napoleon himself.

By the end, the battle between the abbe and the doctor over Sade grows to encompass questions as relevant -- no, more relevant -- than the latest Internet posting. Can art be used as therapy -- and if so, should that therapy be public? Does art fuel or simply reflect the violence of its time? And if it provokes madmen to commit diabolical acts, is it worth the cost? (This movie has the guts to pose that last question, a favorite of censors, in an insane asylum.)

Also: Who is the bigger danger to society -- Sade, the anti-sacred monster? Or the righteous hypocrite of a physician who would bring him down? And which grudge match provides the deeper and more revelatory conflict: Sade vs. the doctor, who shares with the marquis a lascivious appetite for power? Or the two of them against the liberal abbe, who tries to use sweet reason to balance their demands?

If the doctor is Kenneth Starr, the Clinton figure is the abbe, whose unconsummated love for a laundress would be as blasphemous to conservatives as our president's semi-consummated affair with an intern -- and whose tolerance for art as a mental salve can be as goading as, say, Democratic support for the NEA. But the movie doesn't let the abbe off his own peculiar hook. The villainous physician names the abbe's disease when he defines idealism as "youth's final luxury." The movie proves the doctor correct.

By the end, the abbe confronts his complicity in one death and his active role in another. When he recognizes his lust and bloodlust, his worldview shatters and re-forms. He becomes a free man -- but it's a Pyrrhic victory, with a hint that the marquis may have called the shots. Phoenix is amazing as the abbe. He displays more virile edge as a priest than he gets to do as a Sadean emperor in "Gladiator." He gives Kaufman what Jimmy Stewart gave his directors: a presence at once sensitive, harrowing and manly.

"Quills" never deteriorates into schematic debate: It's all flesh and bone and blood, thanks to the gusto of Kaufman and his actors. The rest of the cast is like a wish list of British Commonwealth performers who've broken through to international audiences. Here, once again, they show us why.

I thought Rush was at his best as the impresario in "Shakespeare in Love," but he tops himself in "Quills" -- he appreciates Sade as another essentially theatrical creature, with a compulsion to imagine radical fantasies, write them and do his best to act them out, whether onstage or in life. It's an audacious performance: Rush's Sade is the embodiment of a skewed appetite. His off-the-wall robustness enables us to appreciate his delight in his own doggerel wit and to feel exhilarated when he cuts loose, whether with a quip or a jig. He has a magical moment when he devises a way to write without ink or paper - and celebrates the morning after by striking a pose on top of some shelving like a lewd Dickensian ghost (the Spirit of Decadence Past). Caine is his perfect opposite: a master of containment, who finds his sadism in public restraint. And Winslet is an unsentimental heartbreaker, imbuing Madeleine with a lucid native intelligence that allows us to respond to everything that titillates her without letting it swamp the virtue and good nature of her character.

This ensemble operates with a liquid precision -- you might say, like a clockwork orange -- and Kaufman is the rare director these days who knows how to key his lights, camera and action so that everything in the film feels like an extension of his actors' thoughts and moods. One isolated example: The image of the publisher's messenger on horseback, who picks up Sade's manuscripts from Madeleine through the asylum fence, registers as an erotic reverie -- a healthy, unconflicted masculine force of the kind Madeleine will never find behind the asylum walls.

More important, because the Marquis' voice frames the film in two spine-tingling strokes, we see it as a sort of Sadean tale that Sade himself could never write. His hatred for hypocrisy and his love of headlong verbal expression propel "Quills," but so does Kaufman's hard-edged humanism, which keeps it beautifully balanced and cathartic. Audiences will settle into this movie as into a pungent and exotic bath whose elements are not herbs but sharp emotions: from randiness to romantic longing, from revenge to bereavement and atonement. Kaufman still sees movies as a popular art; he knows how to lift crowds on waves of feeling into shifting, startling perspectives. This isn't an art-house special: In its own devilish way, it's an honest-to-God movie.

Indeed, the red-streaked shadows and richly gloomy corridors of the Charenton asylum brought back memories of one of my own favorite late-night films, "Bedlam," a 1946 Val Lewton production based on a William Hogarth engraving. Like "Quills," it contained plays within plays, a villainous medic (Boris Karloff), an abused angel of mercy -- and even a set piece when the inmates cry out her name in an obfuscating, horrifying din. For Lewton, a man of the 1940s, it was daring to stage a black-and-white morality play in a B-thriller form and deliver an uplifting message about improving the plight of the mentally ill. For Kaufman, in this new millennium, what's daring is to make each character the center of his or her own personal morality play, and to salute the pulse-quickening compulsiveness and danger of art.

The movie has the timelessness of all great storytelling; despite the obvious Clintonian parallels, it raises deeper questions that have puzzled us for centuries. What is the difference between what we learn from books and from experience? How much power do we cede to authors when we insulate our young? Why do we read (and write) at all? This movie doesn't mock Madeleine when she says she likes Sade's stories because after her hard life at the madhouse "it takes a lot to hold my interest," any more than it scolds Royer-Collard's painfully young, pornography-seeking wife when she says, "I grew up in a convent, sir. Everything I know in the world, I owe to books." Kaufman doesn't punish the characters -- and he mourns when they condemn themselves. He's as liberal as the abbe, but he's not naive.

This director has rarely received his critical and commercial due. "The Right Stuff," a roistering saga of American guts and ingenuity, flopped after the promotional campaign connected it disastrously to John Glenn's presidential bid. When he made "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Henry & June," fans of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Wanderers" reprimanded him for supposedly becoming Europeanized.

Kaufman's time may come with "Quills," partly because no movie could be more immediate, despite its 18th- and 19th-century trappings. The search for extremes that Sade waged in outri sexuality we see all around us -- not just in the most severe self-exposure and exhibitionism, but in the brutal pursuit of the biggest financial score or the farthest-out "sport." And the way this movie views him, the marquis was nobler than all this contemporary swill.

In "Quills," the heroic side of Sade inspires a ravenous hunger -- not for perversion, but for iconoclastic and imaginative thought. Kaufman the filmmaker, who hadn't made a movie for seven years, must have identified with Sade's drive to create. Yet "Quills" bears no whiff of desperation -- only the brimming confidence of a director whose appetite for filmmaking is once again fulfilled.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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