Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Quills (Philip Kaufman, 2000)

Quills by Philip Kaufman gives me pause. I saw it years ago, and decided to rewatch it after Lockwood of Outside the Interzone asked me what I thought of it. Being a Sade enthusiast I am torn.

On the one hand, they do not shy away from l'Divine Marquis' depravity, nor the notion that his work was unprintable. They danced around the idea that he wrote specifically to be unread. Rather, they had his writing as a compulsion. Also, the way they made the villain (Michael Cain) a despicable hypocrite is a great addition.

On the other hand, I don't like that Sade wanted to make sure Kate Winslet's character was buried in a Christian fashion, and they kept his arguments with the priest (Joaquin Phoenix) to a minimum. But actually, these could be looked at in a different light.

Sade was a devout Atheist; aside from that we do not know what he really thought about much. His was a life of satire and parody; also a life devoted to pissing off those he hated. With this in mind, you have to be careful with what you think Sade means by his writing. For example, in most of his books there is a severe hatred for mothers. All of his major characters (aside from Justine) hate their mothers. Sade, however, in a letter to his stepson said the boy should cherish and love his mother. A desire to gain points with her or shut the boy up is a possibility, but as it is a personal correspondence he might be speaking his true beliefs.

Lockwood mentioned he "remember[s] coming away with more empathy for de Sade." This is likely the best part of the film, and one I initially missed, as I already loved the man. The Marquis de Sade spent roughly twenty-six of his seventy-four years imprisoned. He was imprisoned by King Louis XVI, Robespierre's Revolutionary government, and by Napoleon. That was nearly 35% of his lifetime, and his imprisonment was not due to any crime other than embarrassing his mother-in-law and being seen as immoral for his writings. The few violent and/or harmful crimes he was accused of found him either acquitted or pardoned. You can imagine him wanting to lash out.

So, as a Sade enthusiast, I do recommend this movie. It is not a completely accurate biography, to the best of my knowledge, but I feel it is an accurate dramatization of his life at the time. The main lacking is in the shadowing of his intelligence. He was a brilliant man with a great mind. His compulsion to write is, perhaps, accurate. Sade refused to buckle, even if offered freedom. Ultimately his philosophy might be boiled down as "to thine own self be true." Therefore, I do recommend the film to those uninitiated and interested. It streams on Netflix, and you can see some clips at Hulu.


Lockwood said...

Thanks! Now I need to track it down and watch it again. I should also learn more about this man; I hadn't really thought about his connection to the age of revolutions, and thinkers from that period were really pushing the envelope.

T. Roger Thomas said...


Darius Whiteplume said...

@Lockwood - He was a bit of an Age straddler. Most of the available books have excellent introductions. David Coward's "The Misfortunes of Virtue and Other Early Tales" is not the best, but is an excellent primer. Also, he seems a bit less partial to Sade than Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse, the other primary translators. Coward's intro is good historically, while the other two have a noticeable bias (when you translate 10,000 or so pages of text by an author, you kind of have to).

@TRT - Well worth watching, particularly if you already have Netflix.

Infidel753 said...

It's a riveting film with great performances, but it's more than just a little inaccurate, and in crucial ways. For example, the whole lurid episode in which Madeleine Leclerc is killed is purely fictional -- she was still alive when Sade died. I suspect the episode was added in an effort to suggest that maybe the view of pornography as dangerous has some merit (the violence is shown as triggered by Sade's writings). There was no such dramatic change in Sade's relationship with Coulmier, and he died peacefully in his sleep, not by choking on a cross (though I have to admire the symbolism of the latter scenario).

Also, Leclerc was a teenager at the time of the relationship with Sade. Perhaps the film-makers lacked confidence in their ability to depict such a relationship sympathetically.

It's a brilliant movie, but one must not imagine that one is getting the true story of Sade.

Darius Whiteplume said...

@Infidel753 - Agreed, it is a dramatization. I am not overly familiar with Sade's time at Charenton, more with his early life and time at the Bastille. As drama goes, I prefer "Marat/Sade" which is also highly fictitious, but I think does the Marquis justice.

A lot of small liberties as well. When Coulmier calls "Justine" a "catalog of perversion" (which is accurate) that is more commonly said of "The 120 Days of Sodom" -- though I am unfamiliar with the status of the book at that time. I believe Sade had rewritten it, but I forget the details of its publication.

As far as films that even mention an association with Sade, this is definitely one of the better ones. I am always concerned going into a film. I think Grove Press' release of the books in the '60s (if memory serves) started a wave of filmmakers aping what they thought Sade was about. Hollywood, eh?

The best film I have seen is a French pantomime film called "Marquis." It is nearly impossible to find. I see it on VHS occasionally at eBay. In it Sade and his penis are two different characters, with the "little Sade" egging him on to atrocities. Again, this is drama, but it is a depiction of Sade that is more sympathetic than most and focuses on the cruelty around him. We tend to forget (particularly Americans) what a violent and blood-thirsty time he lived in. Also "de Sade" with Keir Dullea, Senta Berger and John Huston is a fair drama. It is on Netflix Instant. Much better than most of the crap that came out in the '60s.

Thanks for the comment. Always good to meet another Sade enthusiast. :-D

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Y'know, I don't even care about the accuracy of the depiction in Quills. Never let history get in the way of a good story. I love the movie lots. I do wish that they had been able to use De Sade's actual writings--they didn't license any of the translations--but what they did include was a facile forgery. Good enough, I guess. And I love the notion that someone can enjoy reading about depravity without being depraved themselves, as Kate Winslet's character is depicted.

Darius Whiteplume said...

It is definitely a good dramatic depiction. Being a fan-boy, and holding Sade above most men, I do tend to get uncomfortable when things get out of canon, if you will.

As for the actual writings, I am surprised they did not put some effort into their own translations if they could not get access to Seaver, Wainhouse or Coward's work. I have seen other, if inferior, translations and would assume the French would be in the public domain. On the other hand, Sade is not as erotic, generally, though the beginning of "Juliette" is entirely full of hotness. Something about lesbian nun orgies... must be my few years of Catholic upbringing. :-)

Post a Comment