His Nibs

Film still for His Nibs

In Quills Geoffrey Rush plays the Marquis de Sade as a liberating but dangerous force. Richard Falcon talks to its director Philip Kaufman about confusing sex with pornography

"Dear reader," a solicitous voiceover intones at the beginning of Philip Kaufman's new movie Quills, "I've a naughty little tale to tell." The voice belongs to Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, confined in Picpus prison and observing the execution of a beautiful young libertine aristocrat. It's a voice at once debonair, knowingly mocking and camp - as if George Sanders had stepped in for Frankie Howerd in an episode of 70s British sitcom Up Pompeii!. It announces that a singular conception of "the divine Marquis" is driving the movie - neither the philosophical, even romantic hero of those intellectuals for whom de Sade was a compulsive teller of unpalatable truths (at the heart of Daniel Auteuil's incarnation in Benoît Jacquot's Sade) nor the popular imagination's Hammer horror monster of unchecked base urges.

The de Sade of Quills is a compulsive creator, at the mercy of his need to realise his obsessively misanthropic and pornographic imagination through pyrotechnic - and at one key point literally pyrogenic - displays of verbal exhibitionism. It is remarkable that a relatively mainstream Fox Searchlight movie should take on the character, and doubly so that as well as providing a showcase - and extraordinarily entertaining - role for the talented Rush, it also constructs him explicitly as the embodiment of the idea of catharsis. De Sade is confined in Charenton asylum for the rest of the movie, which uses his writings there - or at least a pastiche of them - to literalise a notion of art as necessary escapism. And not just for de Sade but for his popular readership, represented in the first instance by Kate Winslet's constantly under-threat Sadean heroine Madeleine who smuggles out his work for profit and because she enjoys reading it. Not since Milos Forman's The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996) has a mass-audience movie so thoroughly engaged with censorship debates from a liberal perspective. This take on de Sade originated in the play of the same name by American playwright Doug Wright. First performed in 1995, the work was provoked, the author told me recently, by his "agitation" at the threats posed to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) by Congress in the early 90s.

For Wright, de Sade is "the most extreme provocateur western culture has ever known" and speaks to many of the censorship issues raised at that time. Initially intent on writing about de Sade's meeting with the Pope, Wright came across an episode in Maurice Lever's biography in which the liberal Abbé de Coulmier - a suitably conscience-wracked Joaquin Phoenix in the movie - was forced by the arrival of a politically appointed superior Royer-Collard (played by Michael Caine) to confiscate de Sade's quills in an effort to stem the flow of his writing. The narrative spine of both play and film is a game of one-upmanship. The increasingly drastic measures taken to silence the Marquis provoke radical methods of circumvention - at first a play he puts on with the inmates lampooning the middle-aged Royer-Collard's acquisition of a beautiful young wife, later the use of his own blood as ink and, when his tongue has been ripped out, his own excrement - and also cause the stories themselves to become more virulent and extreme.

It's a playfully potent image of the symbiosis between the artist and the oppressor - between, say, Robert Mapplethorpe and Senator Jesse Helms in the NEA debate - wherein the latter almost becomes muse to the former. Although the myth of the Marquis had also, for Wright, enshrined him as "the Hannibal Lecter of literature", keeping the character caustic and witty allowed him to leaven the ideological dialogue the play sets up. De Sade gave Wright the opportunity to take the conservative notion that violence in art stands in a direct and culpable relationship to violence in life, and the liberal imperative that art be kept unfettered "to critique", in Wright's words, "the man-made institutions of church and state", to their furthest dramatic extremes. Both of these positions, for Wright, could well be true simultaneously, and he was thus concerned to allow all sides of the debate a fair crack of the whip - if art can "purify and ennoble", then in his view it can also pollute. Central here is the movie's gothic twist, in which the Marquis' recounting of the most perverse story created for him by the playwright results in Madeleine - the character with the healthiest take on the Marquis' works (she uses them for purgative escapism and then forgets about them, knowing "what belongs on the page and what belongs in life") - being murdered by the deranged inmate Bouchon. The audience should be "whipped up into a frenzy" by the extremes presented and be left with the challenge of reconciling them.

If the Marquis is to provide a focus for a burlesque around perennial themes of censorship and art, the stories he tells in the film have to encapsulate the 'dangers' of both art and pornography. Here Wright's play and Kaufman's film have already been criticised - like Forman's depiction of Larry Flynt - for sanitising their subject. This seems unfair - Wright puts words into de Sade's mouth for their dramatic function within the fiction and because de Sade's descriptions of sexual acts are, as Wright attests, "linguistic constructs which often describe physical impossibilities." The final incendiary story in which de Sade describes his hero creating "virgin" wounds for his pleasure seems in any case a suitably unrestrained Sadean conceit.

More pertinent is the process by which Wright's award-winning play became a Hollywood star movie. Philip Kaufman, best known for his superb adaptation of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1983), crafts films with a more adult approach to sexuality than is usual in Hollywood. He enjoys the reputation of someone unafraid to translate European literary subject matter into digestible form for middlebrow US audiences - most obviously in his Milan Kundera adaptation The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987) and Henry & June (1990), his account of the relationship between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, which has its own place in US film-censorship history as the first film to have been given an NC-17 rating for its sex scenes.

Kaufman's classic liberal credentials are visible here and there in this adaptation. Wright describes Kaufman's introduction of Bouchon as the executioner of the aristocrat girl in the opening scene as "inspired" - it 'explains' his later homicidal response to de Sade's recitation of his latest story, just as de Sade himself used that censor's standby of desensitisation when he bore witness to the damage watching 3500 beheadings during the revolutionary Terror had wrought on his troubled psyche. But the most enjoyable elements of Quills the movie turn not only on its successful translation of Wright's playful juggling with the cyclical rites of censorship and resistance but on its joyful abandonment of good taste, its mix of farce and grand guignol. A relatively unfamiliar tone in Kaufman's work to date.

Richard Falcon: Since 'Rising Sun' in 1993 we haven't seen a major Kaufman movie. What happened?

Philip Kaufman: Every project I tried to get going didn't go. I spent two years on The Alienist, a book by Caleb Carr that Paramount wanted to make. I said to Sherry Lansing, "This is about the murder of a boy prostitute, will you do a film about a young boy whore?" She said, "Absolutely." About two years later she turned it down. The mood in Hollywood had changed and censorship was in the air.

You have a well-deserved reputation for exploring questions of sexuality Hollywood shies away from. How does 'Quills' fit with 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' and 'Henry & June'?

Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin were known for extreme behaviour. But there's no more extreme writer than the Marquis de Sade. Everybody wants to say Quills is a Marquis de Sade movie. But another way into it might be the character of the Abbé de Coulmier. He might well be the line through which to seek enlightenment and curative things.

'Quills' is a more mainstream film than Benoît Jacquot's arthouse 'Sade'. Is there a danger that crossover films such as 'Quills' miss out on a certain audience?

I don't set out to be an esoteric film-maker and for that reason I try to put a lot of humour in because if people can laugh at something they can be steered towards what you're really going for. Sexuality interests me. It interests everybody in the audience. Looking at the audience watching the movie, you can feel the sexual charge. Everybody is thinking about sex all the time. But in films sex is usually treated so simply, or in such a garish way.

'Henry & June' was the first film in the US to receive an NC-17 rating. Do you think about ratings when you're translating a play like 'Quills' to the cinema?

I feel tricked by the ratings system because I thought the NC-17 was going to open up the world to a new kind of movie that would go further than before. Henry & June was an R film and we were going to Washington with famous lawyer Alan Dershowitz to protest but then the head of Universal said, "Why don't we be the first film to go out with an NC-17 and test the waters?" Henry & June did tremendously well wherever it played but suddenly theatres in Boston and Texas wouldn't show an NC-17 and Blockbuster Video to this day won't stock NC-17s. Now everyone's contract in Hollywood, including mine, says we must deliver an R film. I was a little surprised we got an R rating for Quills without any changes.

One sequence that pushes the R rating is the threesome with two men and a girl.

With Henry & June there were two factors that led to the NC-17: one was Anaïs Nin looking at a print of a woman being engulfed by an octopus - maybe it was the tentacles and orifices; the other was two women making love. But when I had two boys making love to one girl that was OK.

One of the boldest things in 'Quills' is laundress Madeleine's reaction to pornography - she responds to it as entertainment, as a turn on. Before the tragedy at the end she's almost liberated by it.

It's reading de Sade that frees the young wife of reactionary governor Royer-Collard and her lover to escape together. And yet you could say that Madeleine is killed by pornography. As de Sade's latest story is passed orally through the walls, the one passing it on to her is Bouchon, who gets off on murdering, gashing, all that stuff. He's been jerking off since the beginning, watching her through the wall.

He's the only one seen responding sexually to de Sade's stories.

But he's already predisposed, he doesn't need pornography to kill somebody, he was doing it before the story began. Then there's the pyromaniac who when he hears the word 'fire' has an erotic, ecstatic moment and sets the place alight. That's his word of ecstasy. It's really the combination of the two of them that kills Madeleine, not the story.

Did the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton affair and the Starr report provide a context?

Certainly Royer-Collard bears some distant resemblance to Ken Starr. He comes to hound de Sade, to stop him from this torrid behaviour. What I love is that at the very end Royer-Collard is publishing the Marquis de Sade's works for immortality just as Starr's compilation of all that stuff is available in every bookstore, for children to read. It made 'penis' the most important word of the late 20th century.

Geoffrey Rush gives an amazingly courageous performance. He spends the last 15 minutes naked.

I loved Geoffrey's physicality, his way of being so impish in his movements, so potty and seductive. After a while he was naked on set without any thought at all, just walking around.

Doug said he wanted to revise the image of the Marquis de Sade to being the Hannibal Lecter of literature. You had a lot of fun with that idea.

There's an old James Whale film called The Old Dark House with Boris Karloff. It's one of the funniest films I've seen but it's done within the horror genre. Somebody terrifying is supposed to be locked up in the attic and you're waiting and waiting and then it's just a seemingly harmless little person. That's the expectation I wanted to build for the Marquis.

The inmates' play has a cheerful vulgarity that might remind British viewers of the 'Carry On' films.

When push comes to shove, in Hollywood the director holds sway. So I was forcing Doug to take out the theatre play. It can't have been nice for him yet what happened is a testament to how creative and witty he is. Shortly before we started shooting he'd written a tableau - a still-life of Napoleon coming out through the open theatre curtains. Royer-Collard is insulted because Napoleon is being mocked. And I said, "That's not going to cut it, Doug, I want a play here." He says, "You want a play? I thought you wanted no plays." I said, "I don't care what I said, Doug, I'm the director, I want a play!" Two days later he dropped a play, in verse, on my desk. I wanted some of the lunacy of the Broadway production of Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade - a bizarre sexual play that would expose Royer-Collard because throughout the film the Marquis de Sade is telling stories about the people he sees around him.

De Sade's ecstatic witnessing of a young woman's execution makes for a great opening.

We know de Sade loves watching people being guillotined. In fact what we had right in the centre of the basket is Marie Antoinette's head from Madame Tussaud's. In some ways the entire story is a Sadean tale, a tale within a tale, so I felt it needed to be sadistic in its own way. Some people complain that the back end of the movie is too strong, too horrifying. They don't like the change of tone. They want Tom Jones, because they can laugh all the way. But to be true to de Sade we must use a sadistic tone.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012