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By Gabriel Jinich
One could write endlessly about the differences between the Marquis de Sade's real life and the events depicted in Phillip Kaufman's Quills, but a far better approach to the movie is not to regard the countless discrepancies as poetic licenses but to take the movie as an allegory slightly inspired by de Sade and his work. Kaufman's work, adapted by Doug Wright from his own play, is an interesting treatise on censorship, freedom of thought, and the power of art. And to make a movie that successfully delivers a pro-freedom-of-speech message by unabashedly studying a most obvious example of its dangers is truly an amazing feat by all involved.
Quills stars Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in the insane asylum of Charenton because of his scandalous writings on sex and violence. Rush at first plays de Sade more as someone who gets a naughty kick out of defying authority than as the amoral and criminally insane sociopath that he is usually interpreted to be. Despite imprisonment, de Sade manages to smuggle his profane writings to his publisher via Madeleine (Kate Winslet), an asylum chambermaid who feels somewhat fascinated by his words. When de Sade's latest writing infuriates the conservative Parisian governing class, Napoleon sends an alienist, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to silence him at any cost. Had the word existed back then, Royer-Collard would have been best described as a sadist, and his method for dealing with the insane would have been regarded as medieval even in post-revolutionary France. Caine plays him as a mask, avoiding all externalization of his emotions except through his eyes, thus making him seem all that more terrifying. Caught in the middle of the action is Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the liberal but na´ve head of Charenton, who is slowly driven insane both by de Sade's refusal to accept his help and by his secret passion towards Madeleine.
The movie first plays as a black comedy, and a very funny one, as Royer-Collard and de Sade take turns outwitting and humiliating each other. The more Royer-Collard attempts to get de Sade to stop writing (first he takes all quills and paper from his room, then anything that can be used as ink), the more de Sade comes up with ingenious and inventive ways to get his words to Madeleine. But during this first half a brutal event is being foreshadowed that eventually takes place, turning the film into an ultimately overbearing gothic tragedy. Tongues get severed and bodies get lashed, men choke to death on metal crosses, and a Catholic priest has sex with a dead body while watching a wooden Christ shed tears of blood. The film is definitely not a comedy any more.
What exactly it is is hard to say, but Kaufman continues to push his point effectively and mercilessly across. To the artist, creating is like breathing, and to silence him is to kill him. And while a writer's influence on susceptible minds can cause life to imitate art in tragic ways, this is a small price to pay in exchange for the enormous riches that art pours into our lives. While Quills is not without flaws, this message is important, and the courage with which it is delivered is laudable.