I wrote an article on this 2000 film about France’s most infamous writer, stating that it incites debate, not debauchery, and is one of the best crafted and intelligent films I know. It was called “Quills: a Christian response” and was deliberately not what you’d expect for that title.
Yet in my latest re-viewing, I became aware of more negative aspects of the film.
Health warning ahoy! Some prior knowledge of the film is assumed, including spoilers
Writer Doug Wright says in the DVD extras that de Sade is ‘a sexy subject’; he’s often called a ‘pornographer’, and words like ‘titillation’ appear in and about the film (eg. laundry maid Madeleine asks gleefully if the next story she is to illicitly deliver to the printer is “terribly erotic”). But it isn’t. Every incident of sexuality and nudity has something unpleasant about it, and it is rarely about love and connection – in fact, the reverse. The flashes of the asylum’s inmates receiving treatment involve humiliation and pain which are considered therapeutic (an enema, the calming chair) or deserved punishment (Madeleine’s whipping, Bouchon’s internment, the Marquis’ maiming).
None of these involve consent.
The stories the Marquis writes (penned by Wright) are all about a young woman being forced into a sexual experience by an older man who often ‘tutors’ her. Like Dangerous Liaisons and The Misadventures Of Margaret, these are not love affairs but relationships built on expanding sexual repertoire, mostly benefitting the man, though the woman enjoys these forms of assault.
There’s also not one word of emotion and connection in these tales, so that however many ‘endless repetitions of nipple and pikestaff’, or other body parts and acts, it is sexual but never sexy. It’s very orifice based, always the man doing to the woman, and the Marquis’ stories have no kissing and no tenderness. It’s hard to see therefore how these stories are appealing; the couplets in the play within play “The Crimes of Love” become repetitive bawdy lists which go way beyond what’s needed to lampoon the new overseeing doctor’s extracurricular behaviour.
Madeleine’s coworkers’ fornication may be at least consensual, but it seems lust based. I found these characters that were neither very necessary or likeable.
Simone’s liberation through de Sade’s books is also about seeking a tutor from a man she speaks little with, so I felt a mention of ‘[their] love’ inappropriate. How Simone would find the contents of Justine inspiring or freeing, I cannot tell, and she mercifully does not act out its contents with her lover Prouix, but seems to have more standard sex. At least she initiates
The real love story of Quills wasn’t in the original script or in the play on which the film is based. The love between Madeleine and the Abbe was Kate Winslet’s suggestion and lifts the story from being an exchange of ideas and a descent of hope and morals. It is Kate, who plays Madeleine, who brings sensuality to this film – it is in her performance and appearance: a strange mix of being good and inexperienced, alluring and secretly wicked. It is she that makes this film have some kind of moral balance and emotional interest; Kate’s role was the appeal of my watching something I would otherwise avoid.
The one love scene that might be called so is technically (as is the story Maddie earlier transcribes) ‘postmortem’, though it’s also a dream, and Maddie reanimates until the fantasy turns nightmarish. There, emotion – particularly the Abbe’s love fuelling terrible grief and remorse – is very apparent. The physical contact begins gently and is mostly initiated by Madeleine who runs her hand on his face, starts the kiss (as she did previously), and pushes the robe off his shoulders; but then he hops on and the screenplay is dreadful in its description of what happens next… he explores her ‘slippery hollows’ (do they know any other words for that area of a woman?), he ‘thrusts’ inside her ‘savagely’. Madeleine is buck naked, but Abbe shows no more than his chest.
The stripping scene between the Abbe and Marquis is funny in the theatre, but in film, it’s sinister; the Marquis says that having power over another man is ‘a powerful aphrodisiac’. Quills’ sexuality is about one person having power over another throughout the entire story – from the ornaments in the Marquis’ cell, the opening sequence at the guillotine through to Simone’s wedding night and the play about it to the dreadful tale which leads to Madeleine’s demise, sex is not about connection and consent, but the reverse. And those who practice kink say that those two cs are at the heart of what they do.
I’ve said that Quills interests me as a film about redemption, but I now see that no-one is redeemed. The Marquis refuses the traditional Christian death rite, preferring to choke on the crucifix he’s offered after being mutilated at the order of the priest. The priest (ie Abbe) himself goes mad and is incarcerated in his own asylum. Madeleine is murdered and her brutaliser entombed to be left to die, without trial or mercy. Everyone continues at the asylum, staff and wards alike, with only death as their seeming escape. No-one improves; only at the fire is there a brief release for inmates. The one person who grows and gets away is Simone; her elopement is comeuppance for her sadistic doctor husband. But he’s not down for long – he strikes up a relationship with snitching, cynical pretend prude Charlotte and continues as overseer at the asylum, making money from the Marquis – the very works he came to ban.
I never did share the Marquis’s view of the world as a place of basely driven 4 letter verbs, and nor was he ever the draw to this film (I tentatively watched it despite him). I’ve always felt that the points of the film could be better made with stories which really are sexy – and the violence kept separate. Seeing the world as the Marquis does is a choice and one that ultimately this story seems to agree with. Madeleine’s death could have led to something more positive, and a story of redemption and celebration of happy sexuality could have emerged instead of one of descent.
I agree wholeheartedly with Doug Wright that art should be there to challenge and change society; I just disagree with his examples of that.
“We fall in love, we build cities, and write symphonies, and we endure,” counters the Abbe. “Why not put that in your work?”
That is what I have put in mine.