Published December 1, 2000
Philip Kaufman’s Quills, based on a play by Doug Wright, who wrote the screenplay, is a perfect illustration of the fact, which I may have mentioned once or twice before in these reviews, that it is now impossible for Hollywood to make a movie about sex which is not at the same time propaganda for the vulgar Freudianism that is the nearest thing to a philosophy — or a religion — that the movie culture has. This — to remind — is the implicit doctrine of the evils of “repression.” Giving expression to all of one’s sexual impulses is not only not wrong, it is right and good and necessary for psychic health. The alternative is to end up as (pleonastically) evil and twisted and “repressed” as, say, Kenneth Starr. Over and over and over again Hollywood preaches this doctrine to us, so that one begins to wonder: if sexual repression is evidently wrong, why do we have to be so insistently and emphatically persuaded of the fact?
Quills, set during the Napoleonic period in France in the insane asylum at Charenton when it housed the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), offers us not one but two examples of the evil consequences of this repression. They are Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a quack doctor whose sadistic methods of treating the insane are clearly meant to be seen as themselves a form of insanity, and Charlotte (Elizabeth Berrington), the fellow servant of our virginal but very sexual heroine, Madeleine (Kate Winslett). Charlotte is the only one of the servants to whom Madeleine reads the romances of the wicked Marquis to express any moral disapproval of them and so, naturally, is (like the doctor) complict in the destruction of the poor Marquis and the murder of poor Madeleine.
So obsessed is the film with its demonstration that sex is healthful and hygienic that it forgets to make sex attractive — unless, perhaps, you are a sadist or a masochist. Indeed mass-masochism is the only conceivable explanation why the movie has done as well as it has at the box-office. You have at the least to have a very highly developed taste for pornography to find the Marquis’s overheated prose other than comic, let alone erotic. And the depiction of French peasants, even those of the revolutionary era, routinely gathering in lascivious co-ed groups to listen to it, and then acting out at least some of the exotic fantasies it has to offer is a little far-fetched to say the least. Maybe there were Dionysian frenzies of fornication in France during this era, but they could hardly have been inspired by such anaphrodisiac “art” as Sade’s.
Yet the alleged artistry of his prose is even more important to the filmmakers than the example of his sexual libertinism — which we have to take on faith, since the combination of imprisonment and what looks like impotence makes him a non-practicing theorist throughout the film. It is as an artist that he is meant to elicit our admiration, a man who continues to write in his own blood on his bed-sheets when the wicked Doctor and his reluctantly compliant colleague, Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), deprive him of his writing materials. The Abbé is at first an enlightened jailer, inclined to believe (just like a Hollywood screenwriter!) that his prisoner’s writing is “a purgative for the toxins in his mind,” but the combination of political pressure and his own sexual hang-ups (though a priest, and thus an educated man, he is irresistibly but — we are to understand — very high-mindedly attracted to the laundress, Madeleine) work upon him to produce the concluding tragedy.
This, as I say, is the putative tragedy of all sexual repression and all political oppression, the two being seen as (as usual) practical equivalents. At any rate, where there is one you invariably find the other. If you are a believer in this romantic myth, you may conceivably find something in Quills (whose title is a bi-lingual pun on the Latin origin of “penis” ) to enjoy. But even in this case you may find yourself a little doubtful about the character of the maidenly Madeleine, supposed to be a Sadean groupie because “I see myself in his stories; I put myself in each part, each strumpet, each murderess.” Such imaginative promiscuity is scarcely more believable than the sexual kind — and much less visually interesting.