This week marks the release of the -certainly masterful- film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, that is why I decided to write a mini-series of reviews called “Pleasure, Pain and Celluloid” about films that deal with the topic “BDSM” in one way or another.
Following the regular review, I will give the film a separate rating solely based on its “(super)naughty” moments in a “Perv-o-meter”, that ignores the overall quality of the film.
Today’s film is Quills (2000), a film about the “granddaddy of BDSM”.
Quills, directed by Philip Kaufman, tells the story of the last year in the life of the infamous French Marquis de Sade, which he spent at the insane asylum of Charenton.
Despite his miserable situation, the Marquis is still secretly continuing to write his “depraved” literary works that led to his imprisonment and subsequently his institutionalization in the first place, supported by the bubbly asylum laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who is smuggling his manuscripts into the outside world, where copies are sold in high numbers on the black market, very much to the dismay of emperor Napoleon.
Thus the French ruler sends the stern Dr. Royer-Collard, who is known for torturing his patients in the name of (pseudo-)science to Charenton, where he confronts Abbe du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the progressive and mild-mannered, but naive head of the institution, with the Marquis’ recently published works.
The upset Abbe, who was hitherto oblivious to the fact that what he considered as “therapeutic writings” of the Marquis ever left the building, still tries to keep up his progressive line and promises to take care of the famous patient himself, if Royer-Collard refrains from using his controversial “treatment”. But things get even more complicated, as the cocky Sade never actually wastes a thought on practising literary restraint, but feels due to the intrusion of the doctor, all the more spurred to provoke.
When Sade writes and directs an outrageous stage play based on the doctor’s recent marriage with an underage girl and performs it with the asylum inmates in the presence of the mocked, the Abbe is finally forced to take action and takes away from the Marquis the only things he really values: his writing material, ink and quills. Unfortunately this move just puts him into yet another moral dilemma, as he alienates Madeleine, for whom he has budding feelings despite his vow of celibacy.
The very first scene of Quills is also its very best.
Set to romantic violin music, we see a closeup of a woman’s face that is apparently contorted in ecstasy, even more amplified as two men hands appear in the frame, sensually caressing her neck and hair. The voiceover narration in the Marquis’ voice identifies her as “Mademoiselle Renard”, a young aristocrat with unusual sexual proclivities, who one day finally found a “man who is as perverse as she was”, whose “skill in the art of pain exceeded her own”.
Following this words, we get a look at the owner of the hands, presumably the aforementioned sadist, a big brute with a bare torso, wearing a leather half-mask and leather arnguards. The music is rousing as he rips the dress of the lady’s shoulders and ties her hands with a leather band, but the hopes of the audience for a titillating peek into a world of pain and desire are crushed when another camera angle reveals the scenery as a public execution, the ecstatic expression as a grimace of mortal fear and the masked man as a headman who just bared the woman’s neck in preparation for the guillotine.
There are a few -too few- good moments spread over the course of the movie, but at no point the inventiveness and originality of the introductory scene is achieved again. What we get served instead is just a succession of tired period piece conventions and cliches, occasionally elevated by decent acting efforts and some visual treats.
My main problem with Quills is the way the story is forcefully shaped to tell a simple-minded parable. I am in no way surprised that even a quick superficial wikipedia research after the sighting of the film dispelled any (hypothetical) claim of the movie to be historically accurate, as the plot turns feel to contrived and convenient to be based on reality.
For clarification, I am in no way opposed to the idea of infusing a historical confirmed story with a message or to look at it through the prism of the world view of a particular director or writer. A strictly objective look at historical events can be an enlightening and rewarding experience, but it’s definitely not the only be-all and end-all of valid approaches.
Actually I prefer an artist’s relentlessly subjective perspective on things.
“In order to know virtue, we must acquaint ourselves with vice. Only then can we know the true measure of a man.”
Yet this is all denied to us when watching Quills. The film’s notions about the importance of artistic freedom, freedom of speech and the power of the written word are basically noble and worth to be told, but the manner in which is it done is offensively simplistic.
Apparently, the makers deemed the audience too stupid to make their own thoughts, so they reshaped all events, actions and- this is the worst aspect- characters for the sole purpose of serving the resolution of the parable, to make sure really nobody misses the “message”.
Each character is robbed of any complexity and never develops a life of one’s own, thereby omitting any subtext that is potentially not in line with the main statements and needless to say, it also has a detrimental effect on a certain feeling of authenticity.
What should be subtext does not just become plain text, no, it’s literally turned into flesh (sic!), into a pseudo-“reality” that suggests that history is unfolding itself in the shape of a parable right in front of our eyes, a dangerous notion that does nothing but feeding the common feeling of superiority towards people of past historical periods.
Good directors tend to include an acknowledgement of the subjective nature of their movie, often expressed through moments of artistic exaggeration or more subtle means (Hint: Amadeus from 1984 does it right), but the style of Quills is far too glossy and impersonal to be able to claim presenting a unique perspective. And subtlety is unsurprisingly not one of the film’s strengths. In the end it’s “what you see is what you get” and that’s not enough.
Even on it’s own, ignoring the historical context, Quills‘ story, slavishly following the tropes of the period piece and biopic genres, does not make a compelling film. A few “edgy” moments here and there -one of them revealed as a dream- have no other function than to pay lip service to the source material. The fact that the film adapts the mechanics of an earnest biopic despite its fictitious plot, achieves nothing than unintentionally drawing attention to some plot holes.
When Sade is robbed of his writing materials, he starts writing with the remaining materials he has at hand, first with wine on bed sheets, later with his own blood on his clothes. Now that poses the question why Madeleine, who has not been uncovered as his accomplice yet, cannot organize quills, paper and ink for the Marquis, despite her connections to the black market and the writer’s massive support among the population. What could have worked as a neat metaphor in a more artful film, is contradicted by the mundane artistic approach.
As I mentioned above, the acting is occasionally elevating the experience.
Phoenix and Winslet deserve most of the praise, as they play their fairly one-dimensional roles with much more passion than they deserve, just like only young and hungry actors are wont to do. I am more conflicted about Rush’s performance as the Marquis, whom the script (falsely) depicts as a kind of 18th century version of Larry Flynt.
To portray an eccentric figure like Sade as a larger-than-life character seems like a good and obvious idea, but at several points Rush just goes into full overacting mode, a behaviour he is no stranger to, judging by his filmography. Some of his antics feel like they would work better on a stage than on a screen* and take the viewer right out of the movie, as film is a more intimate medium and certain theatrics crush the illusion of witnessing a “real” person. Rush is better at delivering salty one-liners, which are one of the few strengths of the script.
*Quills is based on a stage play by Doug Wright.
Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard turned out to be a disappointment though. Not that he ever delivered a really bad performance, mind you, but he seems to be on autopilot here, as if his heart was not in it. Not to forget that I had a tough time buying the quintessentially British actor Caine as a Frenchman.
Worst of the bunch by far are Amelia Warner as Royer-Collard’s underage wife “Simone” and Stephen Moyer (of True Blood fame) as her secret lover “Prouix” and their story is coincidentally also the worst subplot of the film. By secretly reading Sade’s work, the shy and timid Simone, who grew up in a monastery is developing her own will and personality and decides to burn through with Prouix, architect with great hair.
Again the character of Sade just works as a catalyst for a love story with a cutesy “free your mind and the rest will follow” empowerment message, but while Phoenix and Winslet are at least a tiny little rough around the edges, Moyer and Warner are a far to bland and boringly attractive couple to be of any interest for anyone outside the crowd of readers of third-rate romantic novels, of one of whose cover arts they apparently just leaped.
“Conversation, like certain portions of the anatomy, always runs more smoothly when lubricated.”
Which leads me to the next point: the visuals. The cinematography is decent, but not outstanding, bearing the typical gloss of the late 90s and early 00s. While I concede that I am not totally averse to this look, I am still of the opinion that it works better for more romanticized fare like Jane Austen movies, but feels out of place in this case, because a movie including Sade deserves a more daring and rough visual language in my eyes.
What irked me the most was the visual appearance of the actors and actresses. Of course we all know that it is impossible to recreate a 100% accurate look of the population of the 18th and 19th century for film, as it would be far too off-putting for a modern audience and prevent any involvement in the character’s fate. But the effort to create at least a vague “feeling” for the dirt and squalor of this period goes a long way.
In the end we are left with a questionable tradition Hollywood has been practising in period movies for a long time: The core cast is endowed with pearly white teeth and perfectly groomed hair, so we know we have to relate to them, while a few toothless and unwashed extras are thrown in for good measure and some obligatory token “authenticity”. It’s Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman all over again .
Question: Whatever happened to Philip Kaufman, the man who directed genuine classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Right Stuff (1983)?
From an artistic standpoint, his resume has been on a downward spiral since the 1990s, including such poor efforts as the nipponophobe thriller Rising Sun (1992) and the risible serial killer mystery Twisted (2004). Quills is better than those two movies, but nothing about it makes you think that it could be the work of a director whose early work was so inspired and brilliant.
Quills is an inappropriately glossy, oddly impersonal and intellectually unsatisfying run-of-the-mill period piece that is filled to the brim with historical inaccuracies.
An admittedly noble-spirited, but ham-fisted message against censorship and about the power of literature is the only intellectual content of this film, while any other subtext is either sidelined or omitted and the themes of Sade’s work are solely used for ornamental purposes, as to spice up the plot with some mild pervy chic.
Nonetheless I would not say it’s completely without merits, as it serves as an acting showcase for Winslet and Phoenix and despite all, it manages to make the audiences interested in the “real” Sade. A few good lines found their way into the script. Not to forget that I’d rather watch Quills for a second time than sit through Benoit Jacquot’s unbearably boring and pointless Sade (2000) again.
But in the end it’s not the controversial, playful and daring film a fascinating character like Sade would have deserved and therefore it’s a galling waste of potential.
Not much going on here. We see a woman’s hands tied in a close-up. Later there is a scene of another woman getting whipped in public, but it cuts away after a few seconds. There is an allusion to (/mild spoiler) necrophilia, but it is revealed as a dream (/mild spoiler end). Furthermore two moments of nudity- one of them featuring Rush, so beware…
The spiciest parts are the excerpts from Sade’s work that are quoted over the course of the movie and which are still outrageous.
3/10 Perv-o-meter points. Kudos to the writer and director for acknowledging the brain as the most erogenous zone, but it’s too bad that the use of the excerpts from Sade’s work fall flat, because they are not supported by any intelligence in the rest of the script.
Watch out for the upcoming “Breakfast on Planet X” episode about “BDSM in film”, to be published on Tuesday, Feb 10th!