Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The star of Quills far from being Geoffrey Rush is Joaquin Phoenix. As the Abbe Coulmier, he is the anachronistic good-hearted liberal, a man of faith who tries to solve all his problems by compassion. He is deceived repeatedly, by the Marquis, and even by the inmates of the lunatic asylum he runs, but he retains his kindness. Being kind is probably the only way he has of retaining his sanity, but the film implies that this probably might also have been the reason for his undoing.

consider this scene where the the Abbe realizes that the Marquis has been publishing his pornographic books behind his back. He storms into the Marquis's cell with a copy of Justine, but is sidetracked when the Marquis asks him if he has read the book. Phoenix's voice almost breaks with indignation. "Its not even a proper novel. ....Frankly it even fails as an excercise in craft. The characters are wooden. The dialogue is inane. And not to mention the endless repetition of words like ...(pause) nipple and pikestaff". I found Phoenix's performance breathtaking; the battle between lust, love, duty and innate kindness plays out on his face on a near operatic-scale. I'd never have thought that the lugubrious Phoenix and the winsome Kate Winslet would make a heart-breaking couple but they do. Winslet is amazing (as always). So is Rush.

It is the character of the villain, played by Michael Caine, that ultimately trips Quills up. The man is a monster, with no redeeming qualities about him. He sodomizes his wife, a child of sixteen, presumably because that way, she retains her virginity. He practises torture ruthlessly, and for all practical purposes derives a kind of sexual pleasure from it. He condones murder, kills people, drives them insane. He is probably the embodiment of the AntiChrist (and I use that word only because the film uses it once) that probably the Marquis thought he himself was. But the man is frankly, not believable. And in directing all the source of evil to this one person (what about the Marquis himself? He wasn't a saint now, was he?), the movie reduces its own complexity.

But beyond a doubt, the film is a masterful piece of work. It is sumptuous in its look and feel even when its second half is filled with blood, death and torture. It even tries, by its own standards, to show the other side. The conservative argument against pornography is that it gives people "ideas". A key plot development in Quills rests on an inmate, who wants to try out the things he hears in the Marquis's work. The puritan right can no doubt use this plot-point in the movie to justify it's stand on pornography or any "deviant" sexual act. But the Marquis was not a man who only dealt in normal kinky sex between consensual adults. As so many commentators on this film have pointed out, he was an aristocrat who believed that his position gave him (and others like him) a license to kill (and torture, and mutilate) for pleasure and sexual gratification. What should our reaction be to his work now? The cannibal case in Germany has shown that kinky sexual acts must be constrained; S&M torture has to be within boundaries, if it involves taking human lives, however consensual. The question: Can the Marquis de Saade be our hero in opposing the puritan right? The movie's answer is an emphatic yes; but since it softens the Marquis considerably, by turning him into nothing more than a witty kinky indomitably scoundrel, I don't quite agree.

No comments: