For those with a thirst for a Frenchy Fifty Shades, I honestly don’t know whether to recommend this film. It tracks the early 19th century experiences of the infamous sex-pot Aristocrat, the Marquis de Sade, during his incarceration in the Charenton asylum. It’s as Period as you like, with a putrid public, a spoilt upper-class, horse-drawn carriages, costumes, candles and cloaks. But, in a most surreal way, Quills is both lustful and lacklustre. It is not the sadomasochistic Shakespeare In Love some might anticipate, despite including two crew members- Production Designer, Martin Childs and composer, Stephen Warbeck- from that deserved success.
As the Marquis says, ‘This is all the makings of a farce’ – the farce being the lengths we go to across society to suppress the madness bred from lust. Director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) symbolises this through setting, where even on a natural backdrop the characters are confined to a carriage or behind a gated wall- we are trapped by our desires. What de Sade was plainly saying was, ‘we eat, we shit, we fuck, we kill, we die’. He illuminated the farce the human race devised for itself by making these normal actions taboo, spiking the mundane to make it wrong and therefore more exciting.
The problem is, I wasn’t excited.
The script is artless, which is the biggest anti-climax. It is a piece revolving around the later years of a prolific writer- suffice to say there was more than enough material, more than enough potential, for the writing to be inspired. Instead, it’s witless, crude, crass- ah! It took a while for it to hit me that this was intentional. One needs only to read a page of the Marquis’ work to understand where script-writer Doug Wright may be coming from. On several occasions- be it with nudity or excrement- shock seems to be supplied for shock’s sake, which is wholly and admirably synonymous with the Marquis de Sade’s style. But the anachronisms are inexcusable and serve only to detach the audience rather than make the film accessible. I expected innuendo, I expected rudeness- but I also expected flair. It was, instead, rather tired punning and disjointed plotting. Of course, this is largely a matter of taste- I happen to be of the sexual school of thought that ‘less is more’. Contrarily, this film is about putting censorship under the guillotine.
Speaking of, the acting is no clean execution either. Joaquin Phoenix plays a young, handsome, naïve Abbot battling impure thoughts in a comically limp manner reminiscent of Keanu Reeves in Dracula (who was wooden enough to be a stake). Kate Winslet plays a talking corset vacillating between having a worrying accent and a cluttered storyline in her capacity as laundry-maid-cum-conspirator (and more cums to come). Contrastingly, Michael Caine was opulently odious as barbarous physician and lecherous husband. And best till last, Geoffrey Rush as de Sade. He channelled a randy old goat who knew how to spell, sent straight from Hell for the devil’s revelry, very, very well. Overall, however, the characters weren’t meaty enough to do this devilry justice. No pain was really felt (despite multiple in-your-face attempts) which is ironic for a film describing the man who fathered the term sadism.
Another issue was commitment. The innocuous colour effects, which are soon abandoned, are a small example. Now, I’m not necessarily asking for the graphic novel palette of Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd, but there should at least be some follow-through. The score staggers between being a cliché tattletale and an inventive narrator, which- admittedly- at its best inspires true dread, grinding and manic, a horrific heartbeat. There are some neat too-close-for-comfort allusions made with the camerawork, which is otherwise bland and static.
It was humbling to be reminded by the Marquis that, indeed, ‘No-one’s forcing you to listen’. I was compelled to keep watching, the occasional naughty smile was elicited. The film does grow wicked. I was amused by the inclusion of a flagellation scene, with both religious and erotic connotations. And the game of, to pun, Charenton Whispers is certainly a cinematic achievement. Fire was weaved through the story in an intriguing way, from burning books, to incendiary material to full-on flames- as a metaphor for sex, it was fair: something passionate, intense and consuming that eventually dies out. But, in the end, it is for you to decide whether it’s ‘far better to paint fires than to set them’ as the Abbot advises, and then whether this film really inflames anything at all.