Tag Archives: Quills

Kate Winslet 3: patterns in her lovers

Further (and probably final – for now) musings on the 20 year career of Ms Winslet…

 – the short term intensive relationship

Titanic, Labor Day, The Reader, perhaps Finding Neverland; the first two are a matter of days in isolation – one on a voyage, the other, a weekend; the next, a summer

– Her loves set her free

They’re often childlike men and not macho – Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Titanic who spits and runs and has a boyish aspect, though an inner maturity and sortedness; James M Barrie (Johnny Depp) in Finding Neverland who dresses as a Red Indian and wears spoons on his nose at dinner – truly his Peter Pan; Bilal in Hideous Kinky does handstands and magic tricks and has little sense of real responsibility or adult relating; Miles in The Holiday; Brad in Little Children wants to skateboard and play ball, and isn’t comfortable in his relationships or responsibilties. In The Reader, her lover’s a teenager half her age. In Iris, John Bayley’s perhaps a little bumbling and eccentric and less experienced in relationships; Iris looks after him in a childlike way until her illness; in Enigma, Tom’s a genius in meltdown. Monty in Mildred Pierce is less boyish physically, but he’s a playboy in both senses; he leads her out sexually, but he and worldly wise Wally contribute to Mildred’s downward arc. I am not sure Monty can be said to contribute to Mildred’s rise in confidence or business success – rather, he reaps its rewards.

Note how often chasing, fights, games come into the halcyon days with her loves – Jude, Iris, Eternal…, Titanic.

Jack, Bilal and James bring her character out; Kate’s character brings out John and Michael; in Eternal…, Clem embodies what’s in Joel’s head.

The only macho man so far in Kate’s career is in Labor Day, where Frank’s the controlling one, although he does a traditional women’s thing – he bakes and feeds the family, but then ties up Adele and plays baseball, the right of passage to manhood also in A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, and in Little Children. I would say that another Frank in Revolutionary Road is controlling – but then, his behaviour leads to demise. Note that Leo’s role here is a reverse of his Titanic one.

Ruth disarms PJ of his machismo in Holy Smoke.

Men who give her power and encouragement lead her forward – Jack lets Rose come onto him and take the lead, and he contrasts with her controlling Mum and fiancé by giving Rose the tools for a life of freedom and fulfilment away from stricture.

By working together as equals, and Hester and Tom solve the Enigma.

Kate’s played a woman interested in other women (even subtly, tangentially) 4 times:

Heavenly Creatures is all about a female friendship that’s arguably love (though it’s too complicated to simply call lesbian); in Holy Smoke she dances with another women and kisses her sensuously; Iris is bisexual, and so’s Hester in Enigma, whose drive towards solving a mystery with Tom is because both have feelings for Claire (in the book it’s more obvious). And then, there’s Veda in Mildred Pierce, a hard to place mother daughter relationship where Mildred has physical thrills around her daughter and kisses her on the lips, and fights like a spurned lover. In the novel of Little Children, Sarah had a relationship with a woman before she met her husband.

Her loves are her undoing

Like Shakespeare plays, Kate’s onscreen loves come mostly in two categories, often not overlapping:

Those drive her mad or to near death; and those who give her new life (tradegy/comedy)

The former are in Heavenly Creatures, Hamlet, Jude, Quills, Revolutionary Road, Mildred Pierce

Marianne’s first love in Sense and Sensibility is her undoing (the charismatic, handsome, playful libertine Willoughby), but the second, older love (Colonel Brandon) is reliable and moral.

– Escape through imagination, travel, learning

This is recurrent and the most empowering: even if it goes wrong, it’s due to forces or society.

In Heavenly Creatures, Pauline and Juliette create worlds, but are severed through paranoid families and schools and a legal system

Jude‘s advanced through learning and geographically moving, but classism and judgement about marriage creates poverty leading to tragedy and parting

Travel and the search for the spiritual (which involves some imagination and reading) empower Julia of Hideous Kinky and Ruth of Holy Smoke.

The desire to travel – and not getting it – thwarts April in Revolutionary Road; and its lack is behind the problems of Maddie in Quills and Adele in Labor Day; but it opens up possibilities for Rose in Titanic, Iris in The Holiday

Reading is the solace of Maddie in Quills, whose goodness in life comes from vicariously not being good on the page, and of Hannah in The Reader. Iris Murdoch’s whole existence is around words and worlds – academically and in fiction.

Isolation in body and spirit causes demise; keeping on metaphorical corsets means loss of mind and self, and ultimately, life.

It’s meant to be a warning to do differently, I think, rather than suggesting that bohemianism is destructive, so stay conventional: I think those stories say the reverse.

Breaking out of that gives the autonomous women Kate regularly chooses a better life, a life to the full, and is one of the reasons I enjoy watching her and following her career.

Next season will be Juliette Binoche to go with her new film, A Thousand Times Good Night

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Is Quills sexy?

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.


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