“When Sade said ‘It is not the opinions or vices of private individuals that are harmful to the state, but rather the behavior of public figures,’ how could he have known what would be happening in the Oval Office in 1998 – a full 184 years after his death?”
The Marquis de Sade once wrote “I am about to put forward some major ideas…If not all of them please, surely a few will; in some sort, then, I shall have contributed to the progress of our age, and shall be content.” He’s surely smiling now, happy the debates about artistic freedom, sexuality, and religion that surrounded his work when he lived continue today. It’s easy to imagine the current battles over movie and music censorship are new developments; a sign of the decline of morality in the modern age. How presumptuous; the Marquis de Sade wrote what is considered the most scandalous literature in history – lines that would make Lil’ Kim blush – over 200 years ago.
Fittingly for a film about the Marquis de Sade, Quills begins with a beheading and includes sodomy, rape, mutilation, necrophilia, and even a little scat. Surprisingly, it’s also a comedy – one that weaves fact and fiction into a tale of Sade’s (Geoffrey Rush) last days. Confined to a luxurious, phallus-filled cell in a mental asylum, Sade exorcises his demons by committing them to paper, thanks to the idealistic Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who advocates reform through encouragement of the arts. Sade manages to publish these works with the help of his chambermaid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a willing accomplice in spite of her virtue. When the scandalous writings spread across France, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), an iron–fisted psychologist, is enlisted to “rehabilitate” Sade, resulting in a suspenseful yet humorous match of wits between the two men.
While the film does depict pornography’s possible ugly ramifications, it makes a stronger case in favor of porn as a necessary outlet for repressed urges. Pleading his case, Sade declares his writings occur as involuntarily as the beating of his heart or his constant erection.
Rush makes a deliciously complex Sade, at once tactless, vile, intelligent and riveting. Winslet is terrific as the laundress with a chaste heart and dirty mind, and Phoenix delivers yet another nuanced performance in a role that could have been strictly one-dimensional. Caine’s Dr. Royer-Collard has a Ken Starr-type zeal, frightening in his blind pursuit of righteousness.
Some proclaim the Marquis de Sade a genius and a prophet; others curse him as a vicious evangelist. But consider this: When Sade said “It is not the opinions or vices of private individuals that are harmful to the state, but rather the behavior of public figures,” how could he have known what would be happening in the Oval Office in 1998 – a full 184 years after his death?