Wednesday, June 9, 2010

recommendation: "Quills" (2000 movie)

Quills is the story of the Marquis de Sade, scandalous author of erotica (or pornography? that is another debate altogether) in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century France. He is confined to an insane asylum, but continues to write, to the dismay and delight of his public.

"You're not the Antichrist. You're nothing but a malcontent who knows how to spell!"

At least, this is the tale the movie promises us, but much like the Marquis' own work, it delivers something entirely different underneath the lewd veneer. Just as de Sade explored philosophy through perversion (or normalcy? that, too, is another debate), Quills explores philosophy through the man himself. The movie is a meditation on writing, reading, and the power inherent in both.

"It's not even a proper novel! It's nothing but an encyclopedia of perversions!"

Quills' exquisite cast plays out a four-part character dynamic in all its painful nuance. De Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is the writer, Maddy (Kate Winslet) the reader, the Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) the healer, Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) the corrector. Who are our heroes and who are our villains? The Abbé is the hero--or is he? Is naivety and goodwill enough to form a hero, or are they seeds that will blossom into unspeakable maturity? Maddy is our heroine, is she not? But is she so desperate for personal realization that she will walk over others to attain it?

"The price, my coquette, is every bit as firm as I am."

The Doctor is a bleak villain, convinced of his principles: in his mind, he is the hero, and our reactions to him depend on this. "I had no time to write," he says to his prepubescent bride. In the context of the movie, his failure to touch the quill signals to us the depth of his malignancy, but once we have seen the horrors other quills have wrought, can we be entirely comfortable with our own judgement? Yet his bride's chance to lift his cruel hand comes through de Sade's words, the very words that precipitate others' fall.

And the Marquis himself--ah.

"I'll die of loneliness. I've no company but the characters I create."

De Sade is perhaps the most complicated figure of all, and yet his desire is so simple: to write the world that is in his head. It is only because he himself is so aware of his mighty contradictions and the turmoil that thrusts his hand to the quill and the quill to the page that he appears to us with such bleak force and engages both our revulsion and our compassion.

"And then they started burning it!" "That's the peril of composing such incendiary prose."

Quills shows us just how much agency rests in the apparently inert object of the book. Books are nothing without their writers and their readers, and yet they harbor ideas just like the humans that cradle them. Books are born, persist, survive, remain, perish. Books burn. Books set fires. Books are flammable beings, just like we are.

"My writing LIVES!"

Through the course of the movie, we see it happen. Words grow from ink on paper to wine on bedsheets to blood on clothing to sounds passed from lips to ears to, finally, shit smeared on prison walls. Words are images, sustenance, coverings, conversation, excrescence. Words flourish and words die. What do their makers and their recipients do? And how greatly do they influence each other?

"I've all the demons of Hell in my head. My only salvation is to vent them on paper."

The Marquis believes his salvation lies in writing, but is he saved? And Maddy says, "Reading's my salvation," and yet her voracious desire for stories leads her, too, into destruction. Is writing ever more than a breath away from someone's destruction--do we destroy in the very act of creation? What do we destroy when we create? Can one put words in, yet take only words out, or do words become actions the moment they pass our lips, our pens, our keyboards? Quills begins with wit and fun, sex and sly glances, but devolves into pure, choking horror. Such a perfect descent does not assure us of anything.

"How easily, dear reader, does one turn from predator to prey."

Quills is one of my favourite movies. It asks us to read between the lines as we consider pleasure and pain, truth and fiction, morality and immorality, gift and curse, grace and annihilation. These things thrive in symbiosis, and our words can make all the difference. Do we, too, swallow the rosary, or do we continue to scrawl through feverish despair in the hope that someone out there is listening?

What do we do if someone is?


  1. excellent review! excellent points! it's been too long since I've watched Quills. it's been too long since I've seen hot Joanquin Phoenix...


  2. Oh, how I hope the hot Mr Phoenix is planning on returning. And soon...