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 from 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; laundry maid Madeleine asks gleefully if the next story she is to illicitly deliver to the printer is “terribly erotic”. But it isn’t.
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 benefiting the man.
There’s also nothing about 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 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 that.
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 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 doesn’t take his cassock off.
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, 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 is anyone 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 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. Only during 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 driven by base 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.
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.
It is a celebration of sexuality, but also the dangers of denial.
UPDATE: Having listened again to the excellent DVD commentary, I’m reminded that the end of the film isn’t the Abbe going mad, but the birth of a new writer. And that Madeleine and the Abbe are contrasted with Proiux and Simone. The Abbe is so afraid of his own desires and breaking the rules of the Church that he sends this young woman away rather than kiss her. So even if she hadn’t been killed, this was the last that the Abbe would have seen of Maddie. He takes up his quill from her mum in her memory; having experienced the gamut of human emotion, he is now in a position to write. Simone’s response to the same writer allows her to leave her enclosure and find freedom.
Quills remains one of my favourite performances by Kate Winslet.