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[whitespace] Geoffrey Rush Rush to Judgment: Geoffery Rush plays the Marquis de Sade, the French writer who gave perversity a philosophical gloss.

How De Sade Stole Christmas

The real hit of the season ought to be 'Quills,' Philip Kaufman's smart bio-fairy-tale about the infamous proto-pornographer

By Richard von Busack

IN ITS WAY, Quills, Philip Kaufman's new film about the Marquis de Sade, is the adult version of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Jim Carrey's hit movie certainly has its share of pain for pain's sake. Remember Carrey, fetchingly attired in lime-green fake fur, writhing on the ground in agony as his heart grows three sizes? Here's a scene as funny as a heart attack.

In interviews, Carrey has also talked about hiring a Navy SEAL torture-expert to help him overcome the pain of wearing his yellow contact lenses. And what is the viewer supposed to make of the scene in which the Grinch sticks his head between the clashing cymbals of a colossal wind-up monkey? There's a torture even the Divine Marquis didn't conceive of.

Watching The Grinch is like being gang-raped by Smurfs. It's an utterly sadistic experience--viewers are bent to a dominating yet infantile willpower, belonging to Carrey. Quills, the latest from the director of The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is a similarly stagy movie. Most of it takes place in a dungeon, just as The Grinch takes place in a cave. But where The Grinch is a degrading experience, Quills turns out to be a seasonal movie you didn't dare hope for: Christmas With the Marquis!

Only parts of Quills are in verse, Seuss-style, in a play within a play, and historically, Quills is only slightly more accurate than Horton Hears a Who. (Quills' remarkable beginning in the Reign of Terror obscures the fact that de Sade wrote his infamous The 120 Days of Sodom years before the French Revolution).

But as de Sade, Geoffrey Rush is more fun than Carrey's Grinch. He's a de Sade who realizes that his reputation has proceeded him. Stuck in his chamber at Charenton asylum, he scratches out his stories, sometimes in a peculiar form of red ink. It's worth the admission just to hear Rush putting an inflection on the toast "Bottoms up!" (though, incomprehensibly, Winslet goes unspanked in this movie).

Kate Winslet, straining her bodice in a fashion that warms the heart, plays Madeleine, an innocent laundress who smuggles de Sade's prose to the outside world. She briskly defines the appeal of his literary atrocities: "I do a hard day's work. With what I've seen in my life, it takes a lot to hold my interest."

A good abbé (Joaquin Phoenix) harbors a chaste love for Madeleine and a Christian love for his unruly patient. His superior, Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), believes only in force of willpower. Thus the struggle of wills is outlined.


Sader But Wiser: The Marquis de Sade has been used and abused in modern cinema.


GRINCHING the Marquis, making him a woolly, lovable contrarian, is a smart cinematic strategy. It reminds one of the rehab jobs done on the likes of Ed Wood and Larry Flynt--forgivable, somehow, since the figures in question deserved a fresh hearing. De Sade indeed deserves credit for his pioneering qualities, for his ceaseless battles for free speech.

His persecution, however, in the heavily fictionalized last third of Quills seems to make us pay for the pleasure of his company. The ending is faithful to the letter, not the spirit, of de Sade--even if the dark turn in the film is justified by the dark turn of de Sade's prose, even if de Sade has the last word.

In our interview, director Philip Kaufman tells me that Quills uses de Sade's voice-over to stress that the film's final section is a fantasy. Kaufman recites the ending: "I leave you now with a tale of the abbé who found freedom in the bottom of the inkwell, in the tip of a quill. Be forewarned, our tale is bloody and blood-soaked."

Kaufman continues, "Quills is not a history of the marquis but a fairy tale. I take the whole thing to be a fable. Children's fables are often bloody and dark--Little Red Riding Hood, for example. The most famous children's story of all is: Once there was an asylum, a beautiful place, with a man called Adam and a woman called Eve. In Quills, Adam was a chaste abbé, and the woman was a virginal woman, and there was a serpent there, a serpent called the Marquis de Sade."

MANY PEOPLE may not have read de Sade--he was banned in most languages until the 1960s--but they certainly know who he is (see sidebar). His fictions--Justine, Juliette, The 120 Days of Sodom and others--are best read by the spoonful. De Sade anticipates many aspects of modernism, including incredible repetitiveness. "You can run out of steam with him," Kaufman admits.

If only he'd left an autobiography. He was the well-born son of an ambassador to Russia and later England. He inherited one of the great fortunes of the old regime, yet he sympathized with the French Revolution. "Whatever affinity he may have had for the revolution," de Sade scholar Maurice Blanchot reckons, "was only to the extent that it constituted, for a short time, the possibility of a regime without the law."

He brushed with that law in 1772. Two female participants in an orgy got sick after being dosed with the aphrodisiac Spanish fly. They swore out a complaint against de Sade and his valet, accusing them of practicing sodomy, a capital offense in 1700s France. From then on, de Sade's life was lived in a series of jails and asylums. His crimes of the imagination far surpassed his pettier real-life deeds.

For a man who spent 30 years in jail, de Sade saw all sides of life. On different occasions, he was imprisoned by a king, a revolutionary government and, finally, an emperor. He was an apparently brave soldier who derided the idea that courage was a virtue.

De Sade was at times both a prisoner and a magistrate; a wealthy landowner and a pauper. The uncertainties of his life can be illustrated in a letter he wrote during the Reign of Terror. The marquis had been temporarily imprisoned in a grand house with a spacious yard.

"An earthly paradise," he calls it, "a lovely building, a magnificent garden, choice company, charming women. Then all at once the guillotine is set up directly under our window, and they began to dispose of the dead in our garden. We buried 1,800 in 35 days."

The delicacy and strength of de Sade's prose contrast with the berserk events he describes. How are you supposed to be shocked by Eminem's paltry insults to his mother after reading the finale of de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom, in which Madame de Mistival gets worked over by her own daughter, Eugenie?

The brat inoculates her mother with syphilis, via the living conduit of a lackey's oversized johnson. Then the mom is sewn up to make sure the infection works. "Here I am," says evil Eugenie, "at one stroke, incestuous, adulteress, sodomite, and that in a girl who only lost her maidenhead today!"

"Oh, my God, what a hideous damnation," complains her prone mother.

Lines like that make de Sade's rhetorical, theatrical flourish more apparent. This sample suggests a common braid of outlandishness in satire, philosophy and porn.

Quills advocates the redemptive quality of de Sade's art--how it redeems pleasure from pain. Yet Quills isn't a sadistic film. As Kaufman explains, "I wasn't really visualizing a film of Justine. Pasolini did Salo, which is a film that goes about as far as you could go in a movie with any thought in it. For people who want that kind of visualization, Salo exists. But we're trying to tell a story which in a way becomes a Sadean tale, which is about the nature of art and madness."

And it has an R rating, yet. "I didn't feel restrained. I was pleased but not surprised that we got an R," Kaufman says. Kaufman's last film, Henry & June (1990), received the first NC-17 rating, which turned out to be a de facto X.

"With NC-17, we really lost the battle for adult movies," Kaufman says. And the battle stays lost even though porn itself--no real substitute for erotic drama--is a multibillion-dollar industry, consumed like junk food throughout the U.S.

De Sade may not have been the merry soul Rush portrays, yet he was the kind of devil whose powers to frighten disappear when you agree with him. He argues for sexual freedom. He tells of the cruelty of nature and history, of the boundless evil of the imagination; he exposes the ulterior motives of authority.

In writer Angela Carter's phrase, de Sade writes about the erection under the judge's robe. Notice how many law-abiding citizens love to joke about prisoners raping one another in jail? They can't get enough of that gag in the movies, either.

Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet
Shouting Heads: Rush makes his feelings heard for Kate Winslet in 'Quills.'

CAN ONE AGREE with what de Sade says and not follow the path he outlines? Yes. Porn, even de Sade's kind, is a utopian fiction, maybe the last utopian fiction we have. In almost all porn, everything feels good, it even hurts good.

Porn, especially the proctological kind so strangely popular today, might be considered the triumph of de Sade. But look at the mainstream films around: the new, improved version of The Exorcist will regal you with a scene of a girl masturbating with a crucifix. Indeed, masturbating with a crucifix was one of the crimes for which de Sade was first sentenced to a dungeon. In Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Animation festival, we see various sexually mutilating acts and speedy recovery from the same, just as in The 120 Days of Sodom.

Maybe you needed sharp yellow eyes to see the wife-swapping party the Whos were having in the scene in which the baby Grinch arrives--note the fishbowl full of house keys. Carrey's last co-star was a big dildo (in Me, Myself & Irene) and yet that wasn't infamous enough even to be noted by critics when How the Grinch Stole Christmas became a monster hit. It's just one more wild thing that Carrey does. Much of De Sade's aesthetic, then, is picked up in popular movies. Outside of a few renegades like John Waters, however, no one's picked up on de Sade's political drift.

Nevertheless, the very idea of movies would have appealed to the marquis. From de Sade's novel Juliette: "How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination. In these delectable moments, the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us; we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate; the means to every crime is ours and we employ them all." Even Hitchcock couldn't have phrased a better description of the movie-going experience.

Quills (R; 123 min.) directed by Philip Kaufman, written by Doug Wright, photographed by Rogier Stoffers and starring Geoffery Rush and Kate Winslet, opens in Los Gatos at the Los Gatos Cinema and at the Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto.

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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