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 insanity.

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.


Geoffrey Rush plays the last third of the movie naked. His butt is seen from several angles, and there is even some frontal exposure.

Kate Winslet is seen topless in two scenes. In the first she is dressing and her chest is seen from the side. In the other, she lies dead on her bier, and Joaquin Phoenix examines her body - turns out to be his dream in which she wakes up from the dead and makes love to him.

Even the 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 angle. 

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

Quills (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.

1) The film has merit
2) It is bad history.
3) Geoffrey Rush was brilliant as the Marquis de Sade.
4) The film reinvents a "kinder, gentler" de Sade to make the character more acceptable to the audience.
5) It was obvious that the film was an adaption of a stage play, in that there was not much action, and there was a LOT of dialogue.

Scoopy was unable to relate emotionally to the film, because the character of the real de Sade is so odious to him that he couldn't accept the
fictional version in this film. He compares it to romanticizing Hittler. I can completely see his point. A film romanticizing Hittler would leave me
cold, no matter how well made, because I have a lot of emotional baggage associated with Adolph. I would have similar problems relating to a film romanticizing Nixon, or McCarthy, or Bill Gates or Ty Domi (for the Hockey impaired, Domi is a thug who can't even skate, and exists simply to hurt people). The difference is that I had no emotional baggage about de Sade. He probably deserves a place of honor on my fecal list, but I watched the film without the same emotional reaction to de Sade that Scoopy did. Scoopy loved the Rush performance, as did I, but was bored by the romances between Winslet and Phoenix, and Warner and the Architect.

For me, the film used the character of de Sade Lite as a plot device, and was really more about the question of whether people, witnessing (reading or watching) violent, sexual and deviant material are incited to go out and commit these acts themselves. I was fascinated by the Winslet character, who was the proof that enjoyment of pornography doesn't make you lewd (she died a virgin).  I absolutely fell in love with the Amelia Warner character. She is being held in cold storage in a nunnery til the doctor feels the need of a wife. Being sent away from his circle of friends by Napoleon to put a stop to de Sade's writings, he decides it is time for this wife. She is 16, he is more like 60, and he virtually rapes her on their wedding night, then instructs the house staff to keep her locked in so she doesn't lose her virtue. She gets her hands on a de Sade book, in her words "memorizes it" and then, her education complete, looks for a teacher to give her practical lessons. An architect (really more what we would call a decorator) provided by Napoleon fits the bill. In the one image I included, we see her wiping the results of a blow job off her mouth.

There are critics I respect on both sides of this issue, with Berardinelli at 3 1/2 stars and making many of the same points I am trying to, and
others calling it highly over-rated. The film has a green tint, which Scoop found distracting and I thought added to the mood of the film. I Scoopy right or am I? We both are. Watching films, and reviewing them as well, is completely subjective. 

Scoop's notes:

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.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • full-length commentary by screenwriter Doug Wright

  • three featurettes on making the film

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.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: Three and a half. Berardinelli 3.5/4, Ebert 3.5.

  • Berardinelli chose it among his top ten films of 2000.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it a very enthusiastic 7.7. Apollo users 80/100.
  • With their cash ....did only a weak seven million domestic gross, highly disappointing for a film with reasonable Oscar aspirations
My guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this film is a C+. It is an excellent movie, but if you don't like thoughtful, talky period pieces, it won't win you over. It is philosophical and the technique is arty. Those who like this kind of film felt it was superb." Scoopy saw it as a costume drama and biopic, and didn't give it much crossover appeal. This is one of his favored genres. I don't often like the genre, saw it more as a morality play/drama, and think it has a lot of crossover appeal. My grade, B-.

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