Old-school S&M

Over the ages tyrannical oppressors, be they Nero, Napoleon or Margaret Thatcher, have recognized the old adage, "the pen is mightier than the sword." Remove the pen, remove the bothersome leftist trying to overthrow the existing regime, right?

Quills documents the story of French writer Marquis de Sade who was jailed and condemned to death by three successive French rulers: Louis XVI, Robespierre and Napoleon–all for being a sado-masochist. Because, of course, S & M brought down the Roman Empire, you know.

The story is set at Charenton, an insane asylum in Paris run by Coulmier, a conscientious priest played by Joaquin Phoenix. Like most institutions of this sort, Charenton is intended to shelter society from the undesirables. Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is among them, although he certainly lacks the outward signs of derangement. Unlike his fellow inmates, Marquis lives in considerable comfort and continues to write prolifically. He befriends Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a young laundress who begins to smuggle his writings, which are subsequently published anonymously. When word gets out, Napoleon orders Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to ensure, at any cost, that the troublesome writer does not continue to compose his controversial master-works.

In Quills, the acting is stellar, with Rush the obvious highlight. He portrays the often-naked Marquis as an anti-hero, the kind of individual who earns the respect of the audience but not the sympathy. Even in his demise, he is a thoroughly despicable little squid and Rush should be commended for not portraying him as a martyr. Also worthy of praise is Caine’s menacing Royer-Collard. The sex scene involving him and his much younger wife is almost unbearable to watch and Caine approaches it with a hint of reluctance, which strangely, only makes the tension the more gripping. And while Phoenix is very good as the troubled priest, he does not command the screen as he did earlier this year in Gladiator.

But Quills often smacks of preaching to the converted, not to mention the perverted. People who support banning books probably would not attend Quills because Marquis de Sade is one of the most routinely blacklisted writers in history. Those who see the movie probably won’t learn anything about the banning of books certain politicians haven’t already shown them. On the other hand, any defence of freedom of speech is a welcome one, particularly when we often take it for granted.

Quills forces the creative to question their devotion to their art. It’s easy to think that we too would continue to express ourselves so outlandishly in a totalitarian state even if it threatened our very existence. But how far would we really go? Would we die for the sake of our art? Such challenging questions may well be unanswerable, but they do lead to one important conclusion: Quills is the thinking man’s Shakespeare in Love.

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