The Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is a wonderfully camp inmate of an eighteenth-century French asylum. His eccentricity is tolerated- he’s really pepped up the asylum am-dram company- but when his filthy literature is smuggled out by girlish chambermaid Madeleine (Kate Winslet) and published, society is scandalised/secretly thrilled. Not so for Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), whose marriage to a convent girl is ridiculed on-stage by Sade and his fellow inmates. He vows to break de Sade once and for all…
Though we do get to hear some of de Sade’s prose, which isn’t exactly Shakespearean, the film doesn’t praise de Sade as a literary genius; more on par with E.L James. Quills is quite a timely film for now, showing viewers that the public was getting in a frenzy over erotic literature long before Fifty Shades of Grey. The debate the film poses is the same as the famous Chatterley Trial; does art have to be good in order to justify its existence? What merit did the Marquis de Sade’s work have?
We see some readers who of course use it to spice things up a bit, as Royer-Collard’s wife looks elsewhere for satisfaction, but mainly it bonds people as Madeleine reads it to her friends and even to her mother, who listen in shocked delight. Kate Winslet (fans will be pleased to note some nudity) is innocent in a charming schoolgirl way, as is her friendship with the Marquis. Rush manages to balance the Marquis’ fondness for camping around and being risqué with his iron-will. Even after his ink and quill have been taken from him by sexually repressed Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the Marquis finds ways to write (I warn you that he does use some of his own resources).
Director Phillip Kaufman manages to capture a sense of voyeurism; in one scene, a tale is told orally through various holes in various walls in the asylum. Madeleine normally sees the Marquis through the slit where he passes her his laundry/manuscripts. Watching a film and reading a book are essentially voyeuristic activities and people are endlessly fascinated by the grotesque. The figure of Madeleine shows how these people can simply be perfectly normal people looking for an escape through their imagination.
The screenplay by Doug Wright has a healthy amount of comedy in it but near the end it becomes more dramatic and gothic. The approach works as the comedy is part of the Marquis’ rebellious nature rather than an inability to discuss anything related to sex without giggling. We get plenty of innuendo but far better to have intentional innuendo than accidental. Personally I’m glad that it isn’t a pompous musing on the erotic or some attempt to make S and M fashionable. Like DH Lawrence’s writing, this is sexuality (and writing) presented as triumph of human will over mental and physical incarceration.
Further recommendations: Shakespeare in Love, Jude (Kate Winslet playing a role almost the exact opposite of Madeleine) and The Chatterley Affair. Feel free to make further suggestions in the comments box.