”We eat, we shit, we fuck, we die,“ says the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) at one point in Philip Kaufman‘s Quills, outlining his vision of the downward spiral of pointlessness that draws us inexorably from the womb to the tomb.
Later in the movie, once the unbridled licentiousness of his writings has inflamed the wrath of his brutish doctor and his sovereign Napoleon and caused them to confiscate his quill pens and paper, he might just as easily utter the words ”We eat, we shit, we bleed, we come — and all of these bodily excretions make damnably good substitutes for mere ink.“ Nothing, it seems, will stop the mad Marquis from disseminating his hell-spawned gospel of sodomy and the lash. Remove his writing materials — he’ll use a chicken bone as a quill, and write in red wine on his bed sheets. Strip the bed, prohibit wine — he‘ll pierce his veins and write on his clothes in blood. Lock him naked in a subterranean cell — he’ll daub the walls with perverted exhortations written, or finger-painted, in his own excrement; a more perfect union of medium and message would be hard to imagine.
You can‘t keep a bad man down, apparently. And not for want of trying. It’s 1801, and thanks to the civic outrage prompted by his writings, the Marquis has been confined, on Napoleon‘s orders and without trial, in the grim, gothic bedlam known as Charenton Asylum. Here he is superintended by the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a priest as susceptible to the Marquis’ charms as he is prey to the temptations of the flesh, here embodied by the booby hatch‘s comely laundress, Madeleine (a ripe Kate Winslet). The regimen is a combination of brutality and liberalism, with old-fashioned manacles and constraints freely deployed on the one hand, but with the inmates permitted, for apparently therapeutic purposes, to stage the Marquis’ joyously lewd plays on the other.
It can‘t last, and once Napoleon’s attention has been drawn to his celebrated incarceree‘s continuing literary and sexual subversion, he dispatches the conservative moralist Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine at his most reptilian) to subdue the indomitable writer of what Bonaparte in his memoirs referred to as ”the most abominable book that a depraved imagination ever conceived.“ If the Marquis represents the liberated mind capable of rendering prison walls invisible and irrelevant, the doctor is his dream antagonist, a humorless Kenneth Starr figure who stops at nothing to fetter the Marquis’ spirit. A demon of religious sanctimony and pre-psychiatric viciousness, Royer-Collard brings with him the hellish appurtenances of his trade: sarcophaguslike iron maidens, the nine-tailed scourge, and a swivel chair that secures a prisoner as he is repeatedly dunked in ice water. The scariest words he can utter are these: ”Secure him to the Calming Chair!“
Of course, in Kaufman‘s eyes, it’s the demonic doctor who needs calming down. Unable to undermine him directly, de Sade composes more devious and roundabout mind-fucks with which to torment his tormentor, even infecting the doctor‘s orphan child-bride with a copy of his notorious Justine and causing her to elope with her decorator. Caught midway between this unstoppable force and that immovable object is the Abbe himself, under de Sade’s liberating sway but at the same time under the doctor‘s repressive command, and torn within his soul between clerical devotion and worldly pleasure. He is the one figure who earns our undiluted sympathy as the two breeds of madman goad each other toward mutual destruction.
We are back in the territory Kaufman explored in both The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June. The forces of literary and sexual freedom are ranged against those reactionaries who would muzzle, neuter, castrate and destroy that freedom. Henry Miller and Anais Nin had to battle censorship laws and the public morals of the French bourgeoisie. Tomas in Being, representing the newfound liberties of the Prague Spring, watches in horror as these freedoms are crushed by Russian tanks. Against firepower and torture, Kaufman posits art as a weapon and, rather more risibly, the phallus as a beacon of liberty that will never, well, detumesce.
In short, Quills is more of the same. But it manages to break free from the self-absorption of Kaufman’s previous excursions into literary territory. Where Henry & June and Being were rather too serious and glum, Quills has some of the manic energy and camp sensibility we more commonly associate with Ken Russell. Kaufman is more restrained and less juvenile than Russell, but the parallels are unmissable.
If there‘s a problem with Quills, it has to do with Kaufman’s continued attraction to literary adaptation and literary biography. Having started out promisingly in the 1970s by working largely on genre material — the Western, teen-gang flicks, sci-fi — Kaufman later developed more grandiose pretensions. The trouble is that the confinements of genre gave the director walls against which to dash his head, and dash it most profitably, and once he freed himself and started to make the films it seemed he really wanted to make, his newfound liberty itself proved confining to his sensibilities. Where early works like The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (about the James-Younger Gang), The White Dawn, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Wanderers all fizzed and popped with genre-bending ideas and startling imagery, his later films, the ones that bug the MPAA‘s bluenoses, are comparatively static and visually unexciting. It’s as if Kaufman feels sanctified by the presence of great writers, secure in the knowledge that high art on its own will elevate the movies. One is reminded of Alan Rudolph‘s dreary literary gabfests, The Moderns and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, neither of which is a patch on his Choose Me or Welcome to L.A. Likewise David Cronenberg, whose admirably quixotic crusade to adapt ”unfilmable,“ ”obscene“ books (Naked Lunch, Crash) is considerably less rewarding on celluloid than his non-lit projects like Rabid and Dead Ringers. In short, great books don’t necessarily equal great movies, as any viewing of Richard Brooks‘ The Brothers Karamazov (with William Shatner!) will prove within two reels.
That said, however, Quills does have remarkable energy and wit, and is probably the most purely enjoyable entry in Kaufman’s sub-oeuvre of literary excursions. The sexual gamesmanship and lubricity are a good deal more fun than they were in Henry & June and Being. Quills is also free of that strange, inhibiting combination of respectability (high art) and disreputability (nudie cheesecake in the soft-porn style of Zalman King) that made those fine but flawed films occasionally laughable.
In the end, it‘s the game performances that make Quills so effervescent. Rush plays the Marquis as a splendidly campy, untamable, incorrigible roue, a genially dirty-minded advocate of the destructive, insurgent power of prick and cunt against priggishness and cant. As far as he’s concerned, he‘s merely extending the late revolution from the tumbrel and the guillotine to the bedchamber and, on occasion, the lavatory. Caine meanwhile accesses his underused evil side to render a portrait of unbending rectitude, as secure in his convictions as the Marquis is in his own. Winslet’s role is too small to permit her to give one of her full-tilt, Fearless Kate performances, though she fills the chalk outline of her underwritten part with her characteristic energy and verve. But it‘s Phoenix who steadies the film’s center, using his pained eyes, his endearing speech impediment and his nervous physicality to delineate all the torments and compromised sympathies that convulse his idealistic young cleric‘s heart and soul.