Cruel Operator

Quills, about the marquis de Sade, is a voluptuous impasto. Everything in it – the colors, the locations, the people – seems swirled with a mixture of decadence and grace. American movies don’t often delineate with such rich ambiguity the demarcation between angels and demons, and the lack of clear-cut borders here can seem heady yet profoundly unsettling. Philip Kaufman, directing from a script by Doug Wright expanded from his Obie-winning play, makes a vivid, if finally somewhat compromised, show out of these ambiguities; he revels in them because he understands that his film is ultimately an attempt to describe what it means to be human.

Humanity’s depraved, annihilating force is represented by the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush), the aristocratic libertine who barely survived the terrors of the French Revolution only to find himself incarcerated in its aftermath at the Charenton asylum for the insane, where he lives in a book-lined, velvet-draped bedchamber. A bewigged fop whose finery becomes ever more ragged, he uses Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a young laundress, to smuggle his scurrilous writings to a waiting public – much to the embarrassment of Napoleon. The emperor dispatches to Charenton Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), whose “treatments” for the insane are widely viewed as barbaric. Royer-Collard and Sade are linked by a deep, almost incestuous understanding of each other. Sade intuitively grasps the depravities strengthening Royer-Collard’s iron will. The doctor, in turn, recognizes the subversion that Sade represents; he recognizes his Antichrist posturings, his masochistic obsession to draw out the torturer in his enemies. The black comedy of Quills is that the more Sade is crushed and humiliated, the more thrillingly righteous he gets; his abasement is a horror that doubles as erotic pleasure.

The intermediary in this face-off is Charenton’s overseer, the abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix in yet another first-rate performance this year), whose benevolence toward his inmates has allowed Sade to stage theatricals in which they lewdly prance and chortle. In a series of quick philosophical exchanges with Sade, Coulmier tries to coax his illustrious tenant into exhibiting in his writing the good parts of life; he considers the Marquis his friend, incorrigible but not abhorrent. Sade, of course, interprets Coulmier’s kindness as a veiled request to be brought into the illicit, and Coulmier’s unadmitted love for Madeleine, which racks him, gives credence to Sade’s suspicions.

Kaufman, who also directed The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June (the first studio film to receive an NC-17 rating), knows how to bring together intellectualism and carnality without losing the carnal bite. Sade is, for him, perhaps the archetypal protagonist, since the Marquis, despite all his ravenous carryings on, is a species of philosophe. Sade needs to play to an audience, which is why, when the doctor’s intercessions deprive him of his writing implements, he can justifiably howl, “I’ve been raped!” Sade, even in rags, expects aristocratic privilege, and without a readership for his works, he sees himself brought down to commonness – a mere diddler. This is why he rages for his right to continue spewing his salacious screeds and why he ultimately obliterates himself rather than relent. In Kaufman and Wright’s scheme, it doesn’t really matter if Sade is a great artist or just a depraved scribbler; the point is that he has within himself the inextinguishable impulse to create, which summons all of the filmmakers’ anguish and awe. (Wright, drawing an implicit parallel between then and now, wrote his play in 1996 in response to attacks on the NEA. Marquis de Sade, meet Andres Serrano.)

Quills isn’t very seductive; nor does it try to be. Seductiveness implies a level of human interplay that is far more shared and intimate than anything on view here. Sade may be a libertine, but he is sealed off from everybody else by his own voraciousness. He has the spirited dullness of a pornographer in the grips of compulsion. For him, every interaction contains a sexual secret, and where none exists, he creates one. Geoffrey Rush brings an extraordinary density to Sade; between his tantrums and harangues one can glimpse a man crazed by self-deceit and the wastefulness of his life (and perhaps, although it’s not discussed, venereal disease). When Sade’s wife, Reneé (Jane Menelaus, Rush’s real-life wife), is brought into his cell, we are at first startled at her poise and concern; this is not the kind of woman we would have expected him to marry. Renée mourns the wastefulness, too, and her reasoned sorrow gives us a new window on her husband. It exposes him – humanizes him.

Michael Caine so often plays characters who are sympathetic and good-natured that it’s easy to forget how truly terrifying he can also be (as in Mona Lisa). What’s horrifying about Royer-Collard is the placidity of his belief in his own barbarism – which, of course, he sees as benevolence. Caine understands the self-justifying nature of villainy. The doctor fears and loathes Sade because the Marquis is the one man who sees through that self-justification. Chaos for Royer-Collard, as for Coulmier, is an abyss to be avoided at all cost; but, unlike the abbé, he isn’t tempted by degradation. Or by beauty either. His pretty, virginal young bride (Amelia Warner) is for him a “rare bird” he intends to keep caged in his clutches. Royer-Collard’s understanding of baseness is perhaps as profound as Sade’s. The difference between them is that Sade aches for liberation while Royer-Collard is all about repression. He suspects everyone of degeneracy, and those suspicions keep him in command. When his bride makes a fool of him, we get a momentary flash of the beast within; it’s as if a statesman had suddenly gnarled himself into a gargoyle.

Kaufman goes deep in Quills, but in the end he may stand back from the abyss, too. He’s a bit too much of the civil libertarian to do full justice to Sade, who, for all his preening decadence here, is never depicted in the full measure of his atrociousness. Sade catalogued and exulted in practically every perversion imaginable, but the words we hear spoken from his works are for the most part weak derivatives of the real thing; likewise Sade’s monstrous crimes, while alluded to, are not emphasized. These crimes, which included the torture and mutilation of young women, with possible intent to murder, were at least as responsible for getting Sade repeatedly locked up as anything he wrote.

Quills is one of the few really good American movies of the year, and it’s bursting with intellectual energy and standout performances and good old-fashioned Grand Guignol theatrics. But for all its attention to ambiguity, it’s also pushing a rather neat formulation: In order to know virtue, we must know vice. The film is offered up to us as a kind of curative. But since Sade’s vice has been adulterated by the filmmakers, our ensuing knowledge of virtue is a bit too easily won.

Kaufman doesn’t completely avoid the deranging implications of Sade’s words on others; in a riotous scene near the end, his words help bring about the death of someone close to him. Neither does Kaufman avoid those implications for the Marquis himself. The film practically says that Sade died for our sins. But his writing also occasions a lot of bawdy guffawing and groping among the groundlings and the hired help, and there’s something a bit self-congratulatory about such scenes: They seem to be saying, “Look at how unshocked we are,” when in fact there’s nothing much that’s spoken here to be shocked about. Madeleine, representing, it would appear, all free spirits, calls Sade’s works her salvation. They allow her to fantasize: If she wasn’t such a bad woman on the page, she says, she couldn’t be such a good woman in real life. This is a dear conceit, and Kate Winslet’s radiance as Madeleine – she has the soft glow of idealized youth – saves it from ickiness. But still. Kaufman may believe no man is beyond redemption; he may believe it necessary, as a formidable artist in his own right, to promote art as salvation, much as Coulmier did to salve his mad inmates. But in doing so he links art to the bromides of therapy and denies blackness its truest sheen.

In brief: Unbreakable is the fine new film from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan of The Sixth Sense, and it has the same nocturnal sense of dread and largo pacing. It also has a wrap-up that is just about as satisfyingly surprising. Bruce Willis plays, with great feeling, a security guard who survived a train wreck killing 131 people. Why did he alone survive? Samuel L. Jackson plays a comic-book-art collector named Elijah, as in the prophet, and his stare could probably burn a hole through Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

Cruel Operator