‘Quills’: Marquis de Sade as Champion of Free Speech

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‘Quills’: Marquis de Sade as Champion of Free Speech

The film "Quills" offers an interesting glimpse into the last days of the infamous Marquis de Sade, portraying him as a man capable of remorse and love, with a somewhat philosophical nature. As much an enigma in his own time as he remains today, he spent a total of 27 years in prison for alleged crimes of kidnapping and rape. Defenders of the marquis argue that the charges against him were falsified and that he was, in truth, victimized for leading an unconventional lifestyle.

Whether he was wrongfully accused or not, it was during his time in prison that he produced the most sexually graphic and violence-prone pornography of 18th century Europe. While alive, he was reviled as a monster for his sexual preferences (it is from his name that the term iesadismlh is derived).

However, the part-fictional film "Quills" shows him as a semi-champion of free speech and ideas, who refuses to compromise his own desire to write. When his quills and ink are taken away by his oppressors in an effort to keep him from writing, he uses a chicken bone and wine as writing instruments. When his food is limited, he then uses his own clothes and blood. After he is stripped and chained, he uses his own feces to smear words on the walls. His impudence and stubbornness are remindful of the ifHustlerli magazine mogul Larry Flynt, who similarly refused to have his right of free speech infringed, as depicted in the movie "The People Vs. Larry Flynt."

This very basic idea of showing Sade in a more humane light is accomplished through Geoffrey Rush's fine acting skills. He plays a leering, creeping marquis with a sense of humor, and hums to himself when he writes, like a child building a sandcastle. At other times, though, the focus of the story is unclear due to purposeless directing.

The film is set during the French Revolution and Sade has been committed to an insane asylum for the crime of writing pornographic material. As part of his recovery treatment, he is required to cleanse his mind and spirit by writing out all impure thoughts onto paper. Sade takes advantage of this therapy and uses it as an opportunity to continue writing his popular tales of debauchery, which are smuggled to his publishers by a chambermaid named Madeleine (Kate Winslet).

The only sane prisoner in the asylum, Sade is both charming and witty, managing to befriend both Madeleine and the benevolent Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) who runs the asylum. Though published anonymously, "Justine," Sade's newest piece of scandalous writing, comes to Napoleon Bonaparte's attention. Learning that it is the work of the marquis, Napoleon orders him killed. But on advice from his counselors, it is decided that instead of making the marquis a martyr seemingly imprisoned by the aristocrats, Dr. Royard-Collard (Michael Caine), known for his particular methods of therapy (another word for this therapy is torture), should be sent instead to control him.

"Quills" is abundant with loaded images that contrast ideas. A picturesque view of a castle is suddenly interrupted by the drop of an iron gate. The all-powerful Napoleon sits in a ridiculously large chair highlighting his small stature and childish insecurity.

But as far as storyline goes, the movie loses its focus. You would think that the main struggle should be between the marquis and the doctor. The marquis, who writes about his pas- sions and is imprisoned for it, and the doctor, who under the false air of respectability marries a wife young enough to make him a pedophile, are placed in contrast for the purpose of illustrating hypocrisy. When you see the two together you can't help but wonder who the real monster is, one man for thinking about his desires, or the other for acting upon identical desires.

However, when the Abbe Coulmier is introduced as another antagonist, doing pointless things such as removing the tongue of the marquis, the purpose of this new rivalry is not altogether clear and it merely takes the focus off the marquis and the doctor. Basically, with the exception of the marquis, the characters are oversimplified like modern soap opera figures, evil or angelic, with no explanation as to why and no development of character.

by Joseph Kim

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