This time last year (2000), Michael Caine could be seen on screens around the world
playing the very likeable (if somewhat controversial) Dr Wilbur Larch, the orphanage
director and occasional abortionist in The Cider House Rules. It was a role which won him
his second Oscar (his first was for Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986). But, during the
months that Dr Larch was endearing himself to American audiences, Caine himself was back
home in the UK, working on a very different movie.
"beyond their logical conclusion"
Ironically, the role he was playing was again that of a doctor, but a much less
likeable one: Dr Royer-Collard in Quills, the latest film from director Philip Kaufman,
which was shot through the second half of 2000 at Pinewood Studios, plus on location in
other parts of England and is based on a prize-winning stage play by Doug Wright.
Quills is a partly fictionalised recreation of the period spent in the asylum at
Charenton by one of history’s most enigmatic and reviled characters:
Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade, played in Kaufman’s version by another
Oscar-winner, Geoffrey Rush. A writer most of whose books it was still impossible to buy
over the counter as recently as 20 years ago, Sade did a lot more than give the world the
word ‘sadism’. He was to the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment what Salman
Rushdie is to Islam: a writer and thinker who pushes the tenets of a belief to and beyond
their logical conclusion.
For the French philosophers of the pre-Revolutionary era, human nature replaced God as
the source of morality. Sade simply turned this on its head, saying basically: ‘If it
is in my nature to be cruel, then that is my natural morality’. The problem was, he
put his philosophies into practice, particularly on the sexual side, again pushing things
to their logical extreme. "If it is the dirty element that gives pleasure to the act
of lust," he wrote in his most notorious book, The 120 Days of Sodom, "then the
dirtier it is, the more pleasurable it is bound to be."
As modern writers and film-makers have recognised, from Simone de Beauvoir (who wrote
an entire book on Sade) to the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini (who used The 120 Days
of Sodom as a way of exploring Fascist Italy in his film, Salo), it is not so much the
feverish side of Sade’s imagination that makes him our contemporary: it is the
subversive nature of his thought and behaviour. This, essentially, was what attracted
Kaufman to the project.
"a provocative film"
"I have always been fascinated by extreme literature," he says, "because
it expands on our concept of what is human. And Sade more than anyone seems to demonstrate
how extreme behaviour can bring out hypocrisy in those who claim to be moralists. Quills
is a provocative film, but the Marquis would have it no other way."
It also, thanks to Rush’s performance, presents a man rather than a monster.
"Geoffrey brings an essential humanity to the role that lets the audience into the
heart of a man who otherwise would be considered nothing more than evil," says Julia
Chasman, who produces Quills along with Nick Wechsler and the director’s son (and
regular producer), Peter Kaufman. "His portrait seduces you into curiosity about the
Marquis, and then he unleashes his full complexity."
"the source of his genius"
The focus of Wright’s play and Kaufman’s film is the ‘cure’ which
Napoleon attempts to impose on Sade, using Caine’s character as his tool. This brings
Royer-Collard into conflict with the young abbé who runs Charenton, played by Joaquin
Phoenix, swapping the petulant villainy of his Emperor in Gladiator for a complex
portrayal of a man of the cloth who is determined to find the good in the Marquis. And the
doctor’s cure is repeatedly thwarted by Madeleine, the young laundress (played by
Kate Winslet), who responds to the writer in Sade, smuggling his manuscripts out of
Charenton, but repeatedly rebuffs the sexual energy that is the source of his genius.
"Kate brings all this to life with an extraordinary believability," says
Kaufman. "To think she is just 23 is amazing, because she has such worldliness, such
articulateness, such an astounding ability to express the depths of feelings and ideas.
And the word ‘beautiful’ isn’t nearly strong enough to describe what she
brings to the screen."
"the good soul"
But the abbé Coulmier’s relationship with Sade similarly lies at the heart of the
film. "In a sense, I’m trying to extract the soul from the Marquis and he’s
trying to extract the man from me," says Phoenix. "That’s the core of our
relationship. Madeleine brings forth a desire that is foreign to Coulmier. He doesn’t
understand it, but the Marquis does because, of course, that’s his speciality."
"Coulmier has to represent us all," adds Wright. "He’s trapped
between the grinding, ferocious powers of government as exemplified by Dr Royer-Collard,
and the very real threat of chaos as embodied in the Marquis. He’s the good soul in
all of us, crushed by forces we are not large enough to control."
"All villains think they are nice"
If the film has one outright unsympathetic character, it is Caine’s Royer-Collard.
But, as one would expect from the director of such probing and nuanced films as The Right
Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry and June, Kaufman’s film
doesn’t deal in black and white. "I remember Michael saying that the great thing
about the story is the way it wrong-foots you," says Peter Kaufman. "You think
you’re going in to see a film about the evil Marquis de Sade but it turns out that
it’s surprisingly funny. Of course, there is a dark side to the story, but the film
never loses its fun or wicked sense of humor." All the same, Royer-Collard - whose
(ultimately unsuccessful) methods of attempting to ‘cure’ Sade are every bit as
repugnant as the darker pages of The 120 Days of Sodom - seemed so unsympathetic that
Caine was initially reluctant to take the role.
"I was attracted to the project because it had a great script, a great director
and a great cast," says Caine. "But when I first read through my part, I
thought, ‘This man is so evil, there is nowhere to go with it’. Then I read it
again, and I began to find the way. Fifty percent of him is made up in the spaces between
the words. I like playing characters who are sinister, but I look for a way to give them
some kind of redeeming qualities. I play villains on the principle that no man is a
villain to himself. All villains think they are nice people."
"depiction of hypocrisy perfected"
What is more, it is Royer-Collard who provides the final link with contemporary
reality, forging a bond between 18th-century Charenton and the 21st-century White House.
"We spoke of his character in terms of being a Kenneth Starr-like man who believes
he’s doing a wonderful thing by ridding society of Sade’s writing: a man who
pursues virtue unaware of his own lack of it," explains Kaufman. "Michael took
the idea that Royer-Collard feels good about himself and his actions and played that to
the hilt. His Royer-Collard is truly, as Sade says in the script, a man after Sade’s
own heart. I think the Marquis would have loved this depiction of hypocrisy
Doug Wright, who wrote the screenplay, says, "I hope the film reaches beyond the
notorious man at its centre to speak to a 21st-century audience. I’ve endeavored to
follow the example of my betters, plucking Sade from the musty pages of history in an
attempt to address critical issues in our time. "When the Marquis de Sade died in
1814, he made a surprising last request for a man so wholly devoted to scandal and
sensationalism: to be buried anonymously in a thicket, so that ‘all traces of my tomb
will disappear from the face of the earth, just as I hope all trace of my memory will be
erased from the memory of men’.
"an overlooked genius"
"No such luck. For almost two centuries, scholars, critics and fellow artists have
been rooting about in Sade’s grave in an effort to form a conclusive portrait of the
man. Opinions are wildly divergent. Some heavy-duty thinkers - Artaud, Nietzsche,
Kraft-Ebbing, Angela Carter and Camille Paglia among them - rank Sade as an overlooked
genius, a ‘Professor Emeritus of Evil’. A few even praise Justine as a work to
rival the satire of Jonathan Swift. The Surrealists adopted Sade as their patron Saint,
citing him as ‘the freest spirit who ever lived’.
"Others - like Louis Bongie and Roger Shattuck - are far less generous.
They’re loath to see Sade resurrected at all. His writing is attacked as monotonous,
his philosophy sophomoric and his impact on the world of letters merely toxic. "I
pray that he doesn’t mind the intrusion, especially in light of his last request.
I’d hate to be on his bad side."
Published March 1, 2001