Thursday, June 12, 2014

Quills: The Pen is Mightier Than the Cat o'nine Tails

Director: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, Joquin Pheonix
Length: 2 hours 3 minutes
Rated: R

      As the credits roll over a dark screen, the heavy breathing of a woman is heard. The woman's face appears on screen and a voice over tells the viewer that this woman was a passionate person who's lust knew no bounds, for whom nothing was forbidden. The viewer finds themselves becoming aroused as the young woman pants. The voice over informs us that the woman then met a man who's own tastes and appetites surpassed her own. The large heavy hands of the man come in to frame and cup her face. Are they lovers? No. He is her executioner. Director Philip Kaufman's camera pulls back and reveals that this woman is standing on the scaffold during the reign of terror that was the French Revolution. The voice belongs to the Marquis de Sade who witnesses the beheading from his cell in the asylum at Charenton. Director Kaufman expertly set the audience up with this brilliant if upsetting opening sequence. An audience which was quickly finding itself aroused is suddenly shown a little bit more which sends them into a state of confusion. This is art at work. The essence of artistic expression and those who would censor objectionable material is the question at the heart of this masterpiece.

      Who better to carry on a dialogue about the freedom to read, write or think what one wants than the Marquis de Sade and a truly open minded and compassionate cleric? Philip Kaufman's brilliant "Quills" is a disturbing, erotic, and profoundly deep examination of the freedoms guaranteed us by the first amendment. Adapted for the screen from his play of the same name, Doug Wright examines the rights and responsibilities that an artist has in their quest for artistic expression. The choice of de Sade as the catalyst for launching this free speech dialogue was a brilliant choice by writer Wright. Some of the topics touched on in this movie include sodomy as a vehicle for religious desecration, pederasty and necrophilia. Needless to say, most would find these subjects indefensible in art. If society is to be free of the thought police, then these subjects must be as accessible to the masses as are other more mainstream forms of art and literature. I strongly believe this. This movie is hard to watch at times. There is no way to sit through "Quills" and not reexamine your thoughts on this important subject matter.

      Set almost entirely with in the confines of the infamous asylum for the criminally insane at Charenton, the plot of "Quills" deals with the attempt to silence the pen or quill of its most notorious inmate, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush). Through Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a sexy chambermaid, de Sade smuggles out manuscript pages of his book Justine for publication. Once published, the sadomasochistic novel is brought to the attention of the emperor Napoleon. As Napoleon sits for his portrait, on of his advisors reads him a passage from the book in which Justine is sodomized by a high church official using a communion wafer. Napoleon orders de Sade shot, but the advisor persuades the emperor to do what others have failed to do, cure the Marquis. Along these lines, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is enlisted to bring his medieval methods to bear on the horny free spirit. The asylum is run by Father Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). Father Coulmier is a compassionate priest who believes that if the Marquis is allowed to write, he will exorcise the dark thoughts which pervade his soul. Dr. Royer-Collard is sent to put pressure on Father Coulmier to tame de Sade. Father Coulmier was unaware that the novel Justine had been published. Father Coulmier appeals to de Sade's rational side to persuade him to cease publishing his work. Of course he fails at this. I will reveal no more of this rich conflict.

      The ideas examined in this movie are the real reason to see "Quills," however, the film is populated with brilliant performances by all involved. Geoffrey Rush is perfect as one of the most evil humans ever to draw a breath. It is ironic that, as written, the Marquis is a sympathetic character. I won't educate the reader as to the historical nature of the Marquis other than to say that he was not the nice guy we see in this movie. As in "The People Versus Larry Flynt" the pornographer is presented as a hero of free speech. As a tool to further such a discussion, I applaud the choice of using the Marquis. Were the movie's purpose to promote the torture of women, as the real de Sade did, then I would be outraged. That is not the case here, and I believe such criticism is politically correct tripe and censorship of the darkest nature. Rush, as with several other's in the cast, delivers an Oscar worthy performance.

      Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard is a sinister and truly dangerous man. The likes of Dr. Royer-Collard present more of a threat to society than de Sade ever did. This supposed man of God is cut from the same cloth as Vincent Price's character is the brilliant "Witchfinder General." Dr. Royer-Collard says that he is not here to win any popularity contests, he is here to get results. His idea of therapy is a barbaric dunking chair applied vigorously over a period of months. Caine too delivers an Oscar caliber performance. You hate this man and all he stands for.

      Doug Wright is to be praised for writing the character, Father Coulmier. Wright goes against the typical Hollywood grain and creates a Christian as a real human character. Phoenix brings this three dimensional character to life. He holds his own against these seasoned veterans. He shows a range of talent which he has never shown before. While Dr.Royer-Collard presents the argument for total censorship, Father Coulmier presents the argument for tolerance and understanding. Strange world when the man of science is a close minded bigot, and the man of God preaches tolerance and understanding. While he doesn't condone the content of de Sade's work, he believes it has a purpose. I was impressed that Father Coulmier actually read the Marquis' work before discussing it with him. I thought this was a nice touch on Mr. Wright's part, especially in light of the religious right's reaction to Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ." Many from the right condemned the work sight unseen. I was upset and offended by that film, but I took the time to watch it before discussing it with others. I again thank Mr. Wright for writing such a character. Some who read this, may wonder about this praise after seeing what becomes of Father Coulmier. I respond by saying that we all have a dark side to us, none is immune.

      Kate Winslet is also wonderful as Madeleine, a poor peasant girl work works as a chambermaid at the asylum. Madeleine is the virginal object of love of both the Marquis and Father Coulmier. She too loves Father Coulmier but realizes that there is no future with the handsome young priest. Maybe this is what draws her to the Marquis. I know this sounds cliched but there is no other way to say it: Oscar worthy. She is such a warm, funny, sensual person. Her character is the heart of the film in that she represents the public and how they are affected by unrestrained artistic expression. At one point, Father Coulmier says to her, "if I knew your tastes (her enjoyment of de Sade's writing) I never would have taught you to read." It is ironic that the historic de Sade reveled in the torture of women, but in this film women are liberated by reading his work. The literary license may be forgiven considering the end result of the movie.

      Director Kaufman has created a truly adult movie. Kaufman is the only American mainstream director who discusses adult topics in an adult manner. I thank Mr. Kaufman for not dumbing down his subject matter. As he did in "Henry and June" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" Kaufman examines human sexuality in a serious and insightful manner. I wish more directors had his balls.

      "Quills" is filled with disturbing images and words. But thank God we live in a country where we have the right to view, say and hear such words and images.

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