February 22, 2001

The Naked Truth

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Quills is a wonderful exploration of the mind of the Marquis de Sade, the name from which the term “sadism” is derived, and how attempts at government-imposed morality influence him. The film is based on Doug Wright’s award-winning fictitious stage play about the final ten years of de Sade’s life, and has been adapted for the screen by him and director Philip Kaufman (Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The film commences with an overview of the horrors of the French Revolution, which provides an appropriate context for the perverse thoughts of the Marquis de Sade. When we are first introduced to de Sade (Geoffrey Rush, Shakespeare in Love), he has already been institutionalized at the Charenton Asylum because he is perceived as a sexual deviant.

It is here that he is encouraged by the institution’s liberal director, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator), to explore his thoughts in writing. Coulmier sees this form of art as therapeutic and provides de Sade with ample writing materials. Moreover, de Sade is given comfortable living conditions which include a nicely furnished private suite and wine for relaxation and inspiration.

De Sade’s other major source of inspiration for his writings is found in the form of the young, beautiful, virginal laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet, Titanic). She sneaks a copy of his manuscript Justine out of the asylum, mixed in with some of the laundry, to a publisher. This is when life turns downhill for the Marquis.

Although the book is well-received by many members of the sexually repressed culture, a copy unfortunately finds its way to Napoleon. The behaviors described in the book infuriate Napoleon, and he decides to send the cruel Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine, Cider House Rules) to the asylum to break de Sade’s spirit.

The doctor has extremely questionable morals and practices, as he is married to a 15-year-old girl and forces her to submit to his selfish sexual desires on a daily basis. He attempts to reform the Marquis by torturing him in various ways, which include dunking him repeatedly into a tank of water. This only pushes the Marquis to further extremes, which include him having members of the asylum perform a play about the doctor’s dysfunctional marriage.

The doctor eventually has all of the Marquis’ comforts taken away from him, as well as all writing implements. This still does not break the Marquis, as he even resorts to writing with his own blood and refuse. This highlights the ineffectiveness of repression.

This film is a clear and welcome indictment of censorship and government imposed morality. It openly portrays nudity, murder, pedophilia, and necrophilia for the purpose of telling a fascinating story. Characters in the film enjoy the works of de Sade for their novelty and entertainment value, and do not behave in a harmful fashion as a result of being exposed to them. The best example of this is Madeleine who, in spite of constant exposure to the Marquis’ ideas, maintains innocence in her actions and follows Coulmier instead of him.

Furthermore, the fact that the censors make standards which they don’t apply to themselves exposes their underlying hypocrisy. The film, however, does not condemn or condone what is described. Although Quills will almost certainly have no impact on the issue, it would be extremely beneficial for American society if its message would enlighten our newly inaugurated morality crusader and his followers.

The quality of acting in Quills is extremely high. While the film develops the Marquis’ and Dr. Royer-Collard’s characters very well, female characters are overlooked. Perhaps this oversight is understandable in the interest of time (the movie, as is, is two hours and three minutes long).

The film is a welcome change from Hollywood narration and is surprising coming from a director who worked on an Indiana Jones movie. By having the majority of the action contained within the asylum, Quills serves as more of a method of exploring thought and behavior than simply telling a story.

If you are easily offended, please simply choose not to view this movie. But with that in mind, I highly recommend Quills to anyone who wishes to have a film viewing experience that is analytic, fascinating, and loaded with sexuality of all sorts.

Archived article by Louis Benowitz