October 24, 2002

Under The Radar

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This column is about those movies, independent or studio, which because they were released the same weekend as a huge franchise film or were ahead of their times or the critics just didn’t ‘get’ them, were never seen by as many people as they deserved to be.

Who is worse: the man who tortures and breaks in the name of a cause, secure in his rights and righteousness, or the man who knows exactly what he’s doing, and the consequences, and persists in doing wrong for the sheer pleasure of it? Under what circumstances could one of them be called heroic? Philip Kaufman’s excellent film, Quills, pits an experienced practitioner of the first sort (Michael Caine) against someone who practically invented the second type (Geoffrey Rush). Doug Wright’s exemplary screen play pits Rush’s impish Marquis de Sade against Caine’s vicious Dr. Royer-Collard. Their power struggle is played out within the walls of the Charenton, the asylum to which De Sade has been confined by his wife (Renee Pelagie) to avoid a prison term for his crimes, real and imagined. Eventually, their conflict engulfs all those around them, from the head of the asylum (Joaquin Phoenix) to Collard’s underage wife (Amelia Warner).

Although it is, at heart, an extremely twisted morality tale it is as elegant a one as I have ever seen. Not graceful in setting or pure in theme but dazzling in dialogue. The film, like its main character, is in thrall to words and ideas. In another touch De Sade would doubtlessly approve of, things are wonderfully messy. Glorying in hard questions like those posed in the previous paragraph, the film turns the unforgiving glare of psychological inquiry on all its inhabitants and makes disquieting points about the nature of art, power, and love. It refuses to answer any of them, leaving the audience to draw what conclusions it will (even if you are never able to listen to Claire de lune in exactly the same way again).

The film could have been a collection of grotesques, after all, it is set in a madhouse (which sports the cutest lobotomized pyromaniac midget you ever did see), but Kaufman refuses to see his characters as anything but maddeningly human. Similarly, no one here is exactly the good guy, with the result that everyone gets great lines, with De Sade getting the best of everyone. Always. Even without his tongue. The film, at its outset, looks like simple wicked fun. This is especially true in the delicious interactions of De Sade and Madeleine (Kate Winslet, unwashed and oddly wholesome). Infiltrating this not so happy, weirdly functional home is Caine’s Collard, under orders from Napoleon to stop the Marquis from publishing his seditious and pornographic work. The outcome of that battle is a given from the beginning as De Sade controls everyone around him with the same effortlessness as Rush guides the film.

Nothing in the film is static. Every character moves, most of them inevitably towards tragedy, but no one is unaffected by the collision of morality and freedom of speech. The most interesting evolution in the movie, because it is the most unforeseen, is De Sade’s. When the film begins he is not remotely a good man, neither is he a particularly great artist. Battling Collard with only his leer, perversity, wit, and uncanny understanding of his opponent’s darkest desires for armor, De Sade achieves a strange kind of grace. The man has everything taken from him; furnishing, clothing and most painfully, access to writing materials. All he has to do is stop writing and publishing and he’ll be off the hook. But he won’t stop and he can’t win and somewhere along the line he becomes, dare I say, a better person. De Sade is at his best when the people around him are at their worst. Kaufman uses Rush’s commanding performance on which to hang some very weighty issues and doesn’t skirt the fallout they raise. Consider two scenes. One is simultaneously tangential and at the center of the plot. It concerns De Sade’s visit with his wife. In the end he hurts everyone who would presume to be close to him; he even hits her. He does it in spite of the fact that he cares for her, perhaps even because he does and can’t deal with it. That there can be violence and cruelty and love all at the same time, and be no less love for the sickness corrupting it, is one of the nasty truths Kaufman has to offer. A vastly more satisfying scene has De Sade, denied paper, writing a novel on his clothes — in his own blood. He’s displaying his handy work in front of his fellow inmates when Collard’s men come for him. “Don’t tell me,” he crows, “you’ve come to read my trousers.” He looks deeply satisfied as he’s punched out by the good doctor. What the man who invented Sadism discovers is that while there is power in hurting another, there is more power, and subtler, in making someone else hurt you. Masochists, as De Sade discovers, call the shots. Uncomfortable insights like these raise the film above its essentially whimsical opening and earns the late shot of Phoenix and Rush arranged in a perverse, strangely heartbreaking Piet