From Quills: another 18th century film where we watch a book burn (others are both NA films, and Miss Austen Regrets)
Dear friends and readers,
Tonight I'm writing a blog movie-review about Philip Kaufman, Doug Wright and Julia Chasman's Quills, a movie I did not like. It's been my policy over the past year or so not to write about movies or books or whatever that I don't like - as it takes time -- except when I think there is something importantly bad about it. In this case too I'm clarifying to myself (or will as I write and then revise and polish this one) what I think about this movie and how it relates to my recent project.
Charenton Dungeon halls as seen or built in Quills
Someone asked me why I watched it, and have been reading Francine du Plessix-Grey's At Home with the Marquis de Sade as the probable sexual sadism of this movie and (as I've discovered) the snobbery, willingness to cater to supposed glamor and liking for stories of famous aristocrats in Plessix-Grey are not my usual thing.
Good question and I'll answer it as preface: more than a year ago now I read Mary Trouille's book on Wife Abuse in mid-18th century France and liked it very very much. I wrote a blog-review: In Trouille's book is a chapter on a woman called the Marquise de Granges. She was pushed into an arranged or coerced marriage, and then treated horribly, beaten, terrified, harassed, and she went to court to win separation and an income, a real life court case producing records which show aspects of the ancien regime as women experienced it. Sade wrote a novel based on her life story. I've wanted to read it since then. I had listened to Plessix-Gray's book read aloud by Donada Peters for Books-on-Tape but not read it quietly to myself which I did want to do. In order to understand why Sade wrote a novella based on the Marquise de Granges's story I needed to learn about him and how this book relates to his life and other work.
Miolans, one of the fortresses Sade was imprisoned in, from Plessix-Grey's Chez Sade
I've also read: Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter, a brilliant parody and critique of Sade, and A. S. Byatt's Babel Tower, which includes an inset novella set in the ancien regime where a group of idealists set up a community apart, which given human nature from Sade's point of view (or what we find in The Lord of the Flies) becomes a hell of cruelty where the strong abuse the weak. The story in the present is parallel to this and is about wife abuse.
I am just now reading Felicite de Genlis's Adele et Theodore, which contains at least 3 gothic novels: The most famous is a longish inset gothic novel, Histoire de la Duchess de C**********, very powerful, epistolary journal, about a wife badly abused by her husband, among other things he throws her in a dungeon, beats her, terrorizes her, which begins in Volume II and goes on for quite a while. It was published separately and in English translation too -- and today exists in a modern separate edition in French. I hope to read Charlotte Smith's Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake, her Celestina (a dungeon story), and perhaps reread Radcliffe's Sicilian Romance which like the story of the younger son in Adele et Theodore has a wife in the dungeon. I want to bring together these materials as the underbelly of Northanger Abbey, embedded or reflected in the story of Mrs and Eleanor and General Tilney, not to omit Henry -- and Catherine's nightmare dreams.
There are different gothics, and one, male, which often features vampires, is deeply misogynistic, tends to pornographic and revels in cruelty, especially towards women, power over them. This movie participates in except two of the women attempt to free themselves from either the hated husband or job as chambermaid -- supposedly liberated by reading Justine, which is said to be (by Plessix-Grey) a kind of Candide which exposes the cruelty of the universe. Justine is like Pangloss going about saying virtue is rewarded, and we see that the reality is the opposite. So she might as well give in to her appetites. My view is that giving into her appetites is giving into appetites of men and becoming their plaything -- and Carter partly says this. .Another type of gothic can be (and has been called) female gothic: Radcliffe writes this, so too Wharton, and it tends to be ghost stories, stories of psychological intangible terror with woman as victims. Here's my paper on NA as a female gothic novel, recuperative, genuinely empowering
I've been reading about Sade and books by him: Sade
So, now: Quills.
Madeleine 'Maddy' LeClerc (Kate Winslett) and The Abbe du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix): there was such a chambermaid with that name and an Abbe who was an idealist running Charenton, but the characters as developed in this movie are fantasy. Winslett often plays radical-thinking and feeling victim heroines (Marianne Dashwood, Sue Bridehead in S&S and Jude, respectively) Here they have a philosphical discussion which presents the idea it's hard to tell evil from good, and indeed we will find that the evil man of the movie, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) masquerading as an religious stern but good man is a cruel power-hungry appetite-ridden sadist who destroys the Abbe and inflicts horrendous cruelties on everyone
Caine is dressed to look Vampire like
Written by Doug Wright, directed by Philip Kaufman, and produced by Julia Chasman. I watched this movie last night -- well, nearly watched it. I couldn't really look at the film steadily in the last 25 minutes or so. I had to avert my eyes, look away. It left me shaking, shocked. No one who had mentioned it to me really conveyed the horror of it. It seems to me a horror male gothic film disguised as or combined with period and biopic drama, and connects to "horror-revenge" films or rape-revenge cycles, a subgenre of high violence, heavily sexua, brutal (I Spit on Your Grave is a notorious example). There are articles on these, books: Jacina Reed, The New Avengers: Feminism, feminity and the rape-revenge cycle (Manchester University Press, 2000); Colleen Kennedy, "Simulating Sex and Imagining Mothers," American Literay History, 4 (1992):165-85; Julianne Pidduck, “The 1990s Hollywood Femme Fatale: (Dis)Figuring Feminism, Family, Irony and Violence,” Cineaction, 38 (1995):65-72
I realize the film-makers are presenting it as "serious" on some level. We have the audio-commentary (not for me as then I'd have to sit through the film in slow motion), two features (which I will try to watch), and other paratexts which announce this. But I wonder: at some level it felt very sick (I was sickened), a revelling in imagined perverse physical pain on offer (about people's mouths especially), even if what was exposed was the cruelties that masquerade under respectability and (yes) religion. Bizarre too, necrophilia, sexual sadisms.
The movie began tongue-in-cheek, with Ron Cook as a parody Napoleon, and at first was self-reflexively making fun of itself as well as other conventions. Its themes were censorship, hypocrisy, freedom of speech ostensibly, but as it went along (as Andrew Stein shows in a review),
"is about desire and its discontents, not freedom of speech. The deplorable act uncovered in the film is not censorship of free speech but censorship of desire. Sade represents a man open to all his desires (in art if not in the real world); this is the theme that provokes and excites, fascinates and generates horror in people. Consequently, the film is about Sade and sadomasochism, and, to the extent that the ideals of free speech are at stake, they are couched in the language of Sadean perversion. Liberal ideals of free speech, when connected to a figure like Sade, become rationalizations masking the contemporary fascination with a historical figure who appeared open to forbidden fantasy; the stuff about censorship, the right of Art to say anything and critique hypocrisy, is at best secondary, a mere smokescreen. Quills thus expresses the filmmakers' and filmgoers' fantasies of perverse, unlimited gratification and their anxieties about the limits placed on those desires. We have only to look to consumer culture to discover the source of those fantasies and preoccupations. The media projects a continuous barrage of messages inviting people to indulge their fantasies and overcome their inhibitions. In the consumer age, to be free takes on the meaning of being free to enjoy and express desires without being censored for them (either from within or without). That is the fascination a figure like Sade holds over people in the postmodern consumer society. That is the real subject of the film (From The American Historical Review, Vol. 106, No. 5 (Dec., 2001), pp. 1915-1916)
And when the violence really got going and the attack (so to speak) on the abbe and Sade ended in the horrific death of the latter and madness of the former, it became a revelling in cruelty itself, especially towards women. We see them sodomized as a matter of course, and finding liberation in reading pornography, e.g., Simone (Amelia Warner), the girl Dr Royard-Collard buys from a nunnery. No where in the movie do we find out anything philosophical about Justine: what's suggested is girls want to have fun.
Maddy reads Sade's writing
As Andrea Dworkin and others have argued, this is changing one nightmare for the same one with a new justification that deprives women of the desire to say no. This is what is especially troubling. And that it was said to be mainstream.
Perhaps this was thought right for a Sade movie. As the reader will see from the comments I received on C18-l, the film is a fantasy, seen as a metaphor for Sadean ideas. As far as I can see it, the film tells us about our era far more than Sade: how a particular group of film-makers want him to be seen and how they use what's associated with him. So he is made to stand against censorship but he is also closely associated with sadism. In this film he is the victim not the perpetrator -- as in life especially in his early years he was, if not of such total horrific acts as are attributed to Royard-Collard in the film (and his instruments and people acting for him), acts bad enough to make him a clear and present danger to others as he would not or could not control his sprees. See from Plessix-Grey's book: Chapters 5 (The First Outrage), 8 (Easter Sunday, the Keller case), and 10 (The Orgy, sometimes referred to as "Little girls" as if prostitutes were not women) whch however tell only what got into police records and went to court at length. I do think there was something wrong or disturbed in this man: for periods he'd ben an exemplary husband, son-in-law, father, and then turn around and act out bizarre adolescent boy cruelties dressed up with blasphemies of a childlike sort.
That a film has little to do with its central historical figure in and of him or herself is very common with biopics and also many movies, sequels, to say nothing of academic literary and film criticism, recent biographies and editions. Yes the sources are said to be (variously), Lever's or Schaeffer's biography. But these are huge and I've dipped into them and they are hagiographical. You would as well instance Plessix-Grey. the feature claimed that Boilly's slightly salacious depiction of a laundress ironing lies behind the presentation of the chambermaid -- she does use her iron to stop the monster-man fro raping her; it is he who finally destroys her as we listen to her screams:
Probably the source are the movies and scripts Doug Wright knows well, and books like Bataille's Literature and Evil. Think of Becoming Jane, Shakespeare in Love. A not unimportant change is to chose the brilliant actor, Geoffrey Rush who is handsome and vulnerable looking and has much gravitas:
Here he is elegant
Melancholy, and now as kind of mercurial waif, neurotic, but he wouldn't hurt a fly, a friend to the Abbe who is deluded and destroyed by Royard-Collard:
Peter pan like, he writes all over his clothes!
It had a number of conventions at the close which are found in horrors: the man who Kate Winslett as the chambermaid burns on the face when he sexually harasses her is a hideous fat monster type (an Egor) and he wants to get back. He takes a scissors to her mouth, her vagina. Just about everyone is subjected to the worst cruelties in their mouths: tongues cut out, teeth cracked and pulled out, crosses rammed down their throats. Close-ups of this are provided. And all this is connected to the guillotine: the movie opens with a scene of horrific humliation and cruelty as we watch a young woman slowly put on the guillotine and beheaded in slow motion so she can experience each second of it. She gets to see the heads below. The idea is to equate these tortures with the French revolution.
There were the counter-movement images of sympathy for women: one chambermaid is the snitcher and it's she who actually leads to Maddy's death (though Royard-Collard who permits the horror to go on), but we do have Simone sodomized, Pelagie walking away with dignity (played by Geoffrey Rush's actress wife in real life) and especially Billie Whitelaw as Madame LeClerc, Maddie's closest friend-mother-companion. She survives and when we last see the now crazed Abbe in a cell, himself deprived of quills and paper as he (under the instruction of Royard-Collard) had deprived Sade who had been his friend if he had only recognized it:
or at least as here, harmless, civilized
Now the Abbey is given quills and paper in the laundry by Madame le Clerc as Kate (the maid) once gave Geoffrey (as Sade). The final scene of the film provides a moment of comaraderie and compassionate feeling for this older woman, which reminds me of Marianne von Werekin paintings
Abbe now the pathetic tormented starved prisoner
the old woman gives him quills and paper in the laundry
This is the closing image of the film. Compare Madeleine von Werekin's Woman with a Lantern
There's no comparison with the mini-series, the 1975-8 BBC Poldark, probably half-despised, which makes no over pretensions to an art film and its sources in the genuinely liberal Poldark novels by Winston Graham. In the film there we merely get sudden and marital rapes, casual executions of people lined up against walls (roped in that morning from a prison, counter-revolutionaries the killers), very sick people (typhoid, malaria) dying with terrible miseries in prison, thrown there for poaching to feed families, starvation riots on beaches (also to get back) mantraps set up by aristocrats with feet crushed, enclosures throwing people off land, death by drowning in mines and from the wretched conditions, people shot up while smuggling to fish. Usual stuff. More my speed.