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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Satire & L'affaire Charlie Hebdo (3 of 4): The Lessons of Philip Kaufman's Quills


In the opening scene of Philip Kaufman's prickly and erotic drama Quills (2000), based on Doug Wright's clever and perceptive play, we bear witness to a muscular brute partly dressed in leather who both gropes and caresses a young woman in what appears to be a sadomasochistic tryst. As we're drawn in further and become aroused by the deeper and darker dynamics of their grappling, we soon discover that we've actually become enraptured by the sight of Mademoiselle Renard, a libidinous aristocrat, who is about to meet her demise at the hands of a sadistic executioner during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. Just as she is about to be decapitated, we meet the incarcerated Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) who is in the process of documenting her tale. In one swift stroke, Phil Kaufman with a sly aplomb implicates us in our deeper fascination with sex and violence. With that audacious opening, the director, who is no stranger to eroticism and politics (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June), brings us in more intimate touch with our hidden and forbidden desires. He uses the outrageous exploits – and the brutally frank writings – of the Marquis to raise more probing questions about the role of art, the matters of sex and the dubious tool of censorship. And it's no accident that the story is set a short time after the Reign of Terror because what's up for grabs in Quills is the romantic belief in the basic goodness of man.

Quills traces the story of de Sade, who Rush plays with the suave gusto of a sated satyr, during his final years at the Charenton Asylum, where he is incarcerated due to his lewd behaviour. He writes his salacious stories, which still have the power to create a scandal, at the urging of Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who is the progressive head of the asylum. This decent and liberal man of God believes that art can act as "a purgative to the toxins in the mind." So the inmates are treated in a very humane fashion and encouraged to use art as a form of therapy. But thanks to Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a young laundress who is fascinated with the Marquis's prose, Sade is able to unleash his own "purgative toxins" to the public because she sneaks his material out to be published. When the Emperor Napoleon gets wind of Sade's violently horny dramas, he demands that the Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a cruelly scientific Grand Inquisitor, curtail de Sade's ribald scribblings through his own violent and persuasive means .

Kate Winslet in Quills.
The picture begins as a comic battle of wills over Sade's ability to write and publish despite the opposition to his work, but when the Marquis refuses to stop, he's stripped of his quills. So Sade rebels by using anything he can find – not excluding his own excrement – to compose his scandalous novels. Quills is, without question, an anti-censorship film with a smart and timely thesis given our discussion this week in Critics at Large over the role of satire, censorship and the recent tragedy in France. Yet the picture never succumbs to melodrama. Sade may be a victim of a repressed society, but he's hardly portrayed as an innocent lamb who is martyred by being led to the slaughter. Sade is seen as a self-serving narcissist who writes his prose to draw attention, as well as provoke and offend, and to lure the innocent Madeleine into his clutches because he recognizes how his writing inspires the titillating fantasies beginning to bubble in her. But while her fantasies may be stoked by Sade's work, her heart actually belongs to the selfless Abbe (whose heart might belong to God, but his hidden desires don't). The Abbe tries to lure Sade into writing more elevating prose, but Sade can see through the purpose of his plan. Recognizing the Abbe's unacknowledged lust for Madelaine, Sade knows that Abbe's desire to censor him comes from Abbe's own fear that the work might stoke his own libidinous longings which he's trying to deny are there. The Abbe hides his lust behind his quaint liberalism which sees the world, as he does art, in terms of cause and effect. When he tells Sade that art is created to exalt us, the Marquis tells this naive soul, "I would have thought that was your duty, not mine." Dr. Royer-Collard understands Sade more clearly and the danger he represents to the institutional order. He sees with a cunning malice that the Marquis celebrates in his novels the hidden cruelties that this viciously cerebral doctor (played with steely control by Caine) only pretends not to possess.

The first half of Quills plays like a risqué comedy of manners and it's brimming with ribald wit. It also features a brisk ensemble cast including Billie Whitelaw as Madelaine's blind and mindful mother, Amelia Warner as the child-bride that Royer-Collard brutalizes just as Sade's prose opens a door to her sexual adventurousness, and Stephen Marcus as the mute brute for whom Sade's work inspires an act of horrific violence. It is that horrific tragedy, and its aftermath, where Phil Kaufman and Doug Wright truly illustrate their courage and depths of perception. The Abbe, who is portrayed with a supple sense of dread by Phoenix, is a man of decency who becomes complicit in a murder, and a wilful participant in another. His liberal rationalism, which attempts to create a humanistic alternative to brutal behaviourism, doesn't leave room for the irrational desires that his faith serves to repress. Quills illustrates that the romantic notion of authoritarianism isn't divided so neatly into the black and white that gives the Abbe comfort. The divide isn't so neatly drawn. After all, it wasn't Reagan's Republican Moral Majority that led the charge to censor rock and roll records in the Eighties through the creation of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), it was Tipper Gore, the wife of liberal Al Gore. When there were plans in Ontario in 2000 to make a film depicting the horrific murders committed by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka (which would eventually be released as Karla in 2006), it wasn't the stalwarts of the conservative Alliance that raised their voices in protest, it was Howard Hampton, the leader of the NDP (the New Democratic Party), who did his damnedest to stop the production. Quills is a liberal movie that critiques how liberalism can sometimes form a shaky compliance with the forces of repression and censorship – and why. 

Joaquin Phoenix as the Abbe in Quills.

Philip Kaufman is a largely unheralded director deserving of a larger following than he has. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is still the funniest, scariest (and prescient) SF films ever made. The Wanderers (1979) captured with subtle cadence the shifting values of the late Fifties and the early Sixties better than American Graffiti did (and the music is placed more poignantly instead of for its nostalgic value). The Right Stuff (1983) was a truly hip and beautifully scaled epic drama. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Henry and June (1990) were, of course, stirring erotic dramas containing all the fear, trembling and excitement of sex. Rising Sun (1993) was a clever contemporary film noir set in the global economy. In most of his work, but especially in Quills, Kaufman recognizes that art, even in its most extreme forms, is dangerous. Quills is about the ways art doesn't ennoble us (although it can enrich us), but instead stokes our imagination (for good or ill) because it has the power to inspire a response. The best art – especially sharp satire – doesn't need to apologize if it offends. Engaging with what we find offensive might even help us come to terms with why it does, instead of seeking ways to compartmentalize our responses. Like the best subversive work, Quills inspires and instigates with a razor-sharp prose.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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