Friday, January 26, 2001

The Pleasure (and Pain) of Quills

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #148, January 26, 2001)

This column concerns Quills, a film purportedly about the last years of the Marquis de Sade’s life (now playing at the Lagoon Cinema). Even though it was released by Fox, Quills is not really your normal Hollywood movie, and this column will not be your normal movie review. You can find normal reviews of this film all over the Web—one site,, has gathered a thoroughly mixed collection of 72 of them. But I have yet to read anything about the film written in the context of the leather/SM community, so here goes. Consider this less of a movie review and more of a scene report.

First, let’s be clear: Quills is not a biography. The film (screenplay by Doug Wright, adapted from his play of the same name) begins with a voice-over invitation spoken by the Marquis (played by Geoffrey Rush) to listen to a “tarted-up” tale. And tarted-up it is; although the Marquis really spent the last years of his life in a French insane asylum called Charenton, and Abbé Coumier and the laundress Madelaine (played by Joaquin Phoenix and Kate Winslet) were real people, the story is a complete fabrication. It’s true that at one point de Sade’s quills and paper were taken away from him, but in reality the Abbé was able to ameliorate the situation.

In Quills, by contrast, Napoleon is so outraged by the scandalous things de Sade is writing that he sends a physician, Dr. Royer-Collard (played by Michael Caine) to the asylum to silence de Sade by either curing him or killing him. The doctor is a completely fabricated character (modeled, supposedly, on Kenneth Starr), and therefore so is the conflict between de Sade and the doctor around which the movie revolves. When Royer-Collard orders de Sade’s ink, paper and quill pens removed so that he will no longer be able to write, de Sade uses wine for ink and writes on his bedsheet. As the battle of wills escalates de Sade is forced to use his own blood for ink, and later he writes a story on a dungeon wall in his own excrement. A ripping good tale—but none of it really happened.

Quills strives to turn de Sade into a noble victim of repression who refuses to be silenced, a champion of free speech and artistic expression who valiantly makes his voice heard at all costs. That’s what the studio will be saying around Academy Award time, anyway. But it doesn’t quite work—de Sade’s compulsion to express himself looks more monomaniacal and compulsive than noble.

As history and biography, Quills fails. As a political and philosophical statement it’s a muddle. You’ll enjoy it much more if you approach the movie as a gigantic leather/SM fantasy presentation, probably the biggest one you’ll see this year (or ever). Whether inadvertently or by design, the makers of this film have included something for every kinky person’s taste. Oriental sex toys, dungeons, wrought-iron cages, bondage furniture (who wants to be the first to try the dunking chair?), torture chambers (therapeutic, of course), an exquisite flogging scene complete with aftercare, blood sports, branding, scat—it’s all here, beautifully lit and lushly photographed. You’ll have fantasy material for a long time.

None of the on-screen kink, of course, is safe, sane or consensual, but as a fantasy it doesn’t really have to be. Well, anyway, we in the leather/SM community know it’s a fantasy and do-not-try-this-at-home-without-proper-precautions. But what about all those non-kinky moviegoers out there? What image are they getting of “what it is that we do?” Unfortunately, not a very nice one.

The fact that the main backdrop for the film (and all its kinky activities) is an insane asylum isn’t terribly flattering. And the kink is certainly not shown as healthy or enjoyable; as portrayed in this film, kink is violent and cruel (and sexist to boot), and people wind up dead, maimed or insane as a result. This is reminiscent of two mid-century movies I recently watched, The Children’s Hour and A Walk on the Wild Side, with lesbian characters who were killed off at movies’ end; Hollywood at the time evidently believed that lesbianism was a crime punishable by death. So it seems with kink according to Quills: kink = madness = death. Lovely.

Not that the real-life Marquis was much better—he was certainly no proponent of “safe, sane, consensual” either, and he therefore makes a somewhat embarrassing patron saint and poster-boy for the community. But for Quills to take de Sade’s story and, uh, pervert it by trying to make it even more sensational, violent and repugnant than it already was . . . that’s really twisted. And, for Hollywood, par for the course.

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