Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Manipulation in film, not only of the objects within the frame but of the audience as well, has been the practice of film makers for decades. In Philip Kaufman?s Quills (2000), a biopic loosely based on the last years of life for the18th century author, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), the audience becomes not just an observer but an active participant in particular sexual acts through overtly suggested voyeurism. For what purpose does Kaufman so conspicuously manipulate the audience into committing these acts? In an ambitious argument for uncensored art, even when pitted against the utmost controversial fiction of the Marquis de Sade (a man who RollingStone.com calls ?one sick twist? (Travers)) Kaufman wants his audience to actively lust for things they cannot have. For this reason, I examine the transition from the experience of fictional freedom in the first scene involving Mademoiselle Renard (Diana Morrison) with the oppression of that freedom within the rest of the film. By beginning the story here, Kaufman demonstrates that in order to understand what can be lost through censorship, one must understand, first hand, what exists prior to that loss.

Before the censorship debate plays out, there are subtle signs that reveal the director?s bias toward a lack of censorship intended to influence our opinion from the start. Within the first ten seconds, we are presented with the idea that fiction is the protagonist through white, beautifully calligraphic title credits which glow in stark contrast to a jet black screen. The gentle curves of the text represent something natural, not contrived, like human nature and the use of narrative to make meaning. The color and font also work as a metaphor for the greater good of those who bring fiction to light. With the title credits comes the sound of soft, quivering breath. It permeates the darkness and gains strength while accompanied by a lone clarinet holding a single, suspenseful note. It is unclear whether the soft breathing belongs to a man or woman, or whether it is derived from pleasure or fear. Immediately we question. We want to know more. In that wanting, we are seduced into lusting after the fiction unfolding before us. This ten seconds of manipulation is skillfully designed to guide us though a difficult debate as the argument for free speech is not one without complication.

Within the same opening minute, the Marquis de Sade is introduced to us through the sound of his voice which, like the white text, penetrates the darkness; or does it emanate from it? Either could be true. He addresses his ?dear reader? introducing his ?naughty little tale,? ?plucked from the pages of history, tarted up, true, but guaranteed to stimulate the senses? (Kauffman). We are presented with the controversy that stems from the Marquis? writing. While the film is a ?tarted up? version of the real Marquis?s life, rather than embracing his historic penchant for committing horrific sexual crimes, it focuses on the writing that reflects the spirit in which these acts have been committed. If, in life, the Marquis? actions are defined as criminal, could it be said that his fictionalized depictions of such acts should be considered criminal too? Or, is fiction the place to safely act out such libertine desires? In these few spoken words, we are presented with the dilemma which will plague and play with us throughout the film, whether we immediately realize it or not.

With no time to ponder, we are thrust into the tale of Mademoiselle Renard, a beautiful aristocrat ?whose sexual proclivities [run] the gamut from winsome to bestial? (Kaufman). As the Marquis begins this line, the black screen fades up to an even, cobalt blue and classical music begins. We learn that the camera lens is pointed at a cloudless sky allowing us to gaze upward as if lying on our backs. The frame of blue is only contextualized by wisps of wavy, brunette hair which are carried into view on the wind while Mademoiselle?s rather innocent face, with half closed eyes and softly parted lips, enters and fills our entire overhead view. Her hair is upswept at the sides revealing the bare neck outstretched before us while loose tendrils of unruly curls carried on a strong breeze caress her face. That this sweet face belongs to a woman with such a wide range of sexual desire creates a great deal of intrigue and excitement for the viewer. With curiosity piqued, we linger in the space of this moment eagerly awaiting the Marquis? next line.

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At this point, the Marquis asks, ?Who?doesn’t dream of indulging every spasm of lust, feeding each depraved hunger? (Kaufman)? Mademoiselle slowly closes her eyes, gently leans her head back to the left and her breathing, growing stronger, is heard once again. Because the camera lens is understood to be the viewer?s eye, the positioning and proximity of that lens to this young woman has the intended effect of making the audience experiencing emotions they would generally entertain only behind closed doors. Having been inserted into this intimate space, we realize that the Marquis? question is directed at the viewer as much as Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle Renard appears to be in a state of heightened pleasure and the viewer, for this brief moment, is unmistakably positioned to look up at her as if we are her lover.

Why begin with this image, particularly since Mademoiselle Renard is never to be referenced again after this scene? Cinematographer John Alton says of framing in Painting with Light:

The screen offers the advantage of an ability ? to photograph the story from the position from which the director thinks the audience would like to see it. The success of any particular film depends a great deal upon the ability of the director to anticipate the desires of the audience in this respect. (qtd. in Barsam, 141)

Following this philosophy, one can deduce that Kaufman acts on the supposition that the audience wants a film to awaken certain passions and offer an avenue to safely experience them. Since film has always been a voyeuristic experience, Kaufman raises the stakes by making the viewer painfully aware of the desire for indulgence through film. As Linda Mulvey says in her article ?The Visual Pleasure of Narrative:?

The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. In the highly developed Hollywood cinema it was only through these codes that the alienated subject, torn in his imaginary memory by a sense of loss, by the terror of potential lack in phantasy, came near to finding a glimpse of satisfaction: through its formal beauty and its play on his own formative obsessions. (Mulvey)

Not only do we become aware of our own desires, thanks to Kaufman, we are granted the utmost freedom to experience it under an open sky rather than behind closed doors before we experience the loss that Mulvey describes.

With one quick twist, we learn that this window of opportunity is short lived. The Marquis goes on to say:

Owing to her noble birth, Mademoiselle Renard was granted full immunity to do just that, inflicting pain and pleasure with equal zest, until one day Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man whose skill in the Art of Pain exceeded her own. (Kaufman)

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This man (Stephen Marcus), whose filthy hands glide over Mademoiselle?s head and neck from behind, intrudes upon our own experience. As his black, leather executioners? hood enters the frame, we learn from Sade that ?Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man whose skill in the Art of Pain exceeded her own.? The executioner has slated Mademoiselle for his next kill and our precious lover is being taken from us. He slides his meaty fingers over her exposed collar bones and into the shoulders of her dress. The corners of her mouth spasm, although her expression is difficult to read. Does she enjoy this? The executioner rips the dress, revealing her shoulders, and she shrieks in terror ?Please, no!? Only now are we sure of her distress. Leather straps bind her hands behind her back rendering her helpless, as are we in the throes of this horror. History, during this French Reign of Terror, is more appalling than fiction because it rings true.

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It is important to note here the finesse of Mademoiselle Renard?s casting and acting. As screenplay writer Geoffrey Wright says in the DVD special features:

Philip Kaufman ? wanted a classically beautiful woman, a woman who didn?t look contemporary, a woman who had a gorgeous antique quality and he looked at more actresses for this small role than any other in the film.

The attention paid to these details is a testament to the importance of the general viewer?s relationship with her. It is helpful that Diana Morrison, the actress who plays Mademoiselle Renard, does not have a great deal of star recognition so that presuppositions based on previous roles cannot be assigned. Also, Morrison?s facial expression during her extreme close-up remains skillfully blank. As is said about editing in Looking at Movies: An Introduction, the ?tendency of viewers to interpret shots in relation to surrounding shots is the most fundamental assumption behind all film editing? (Barsam, 239). This holds true with any combination of cinematic elements. With no mis-en-sc?ne yet to contextualize our film, all that is left to make meaning is the Marquis? narrative. What we learn very quickly is that this narrative is powerful enough to reorder our entire sense of ?reality,? which has been upended in a matter of seconds.

Quills' guillotineSo, who is the Marquis de Sade and from where does such powerful fiction flow? Watching from behind bars in a prison tower perched high above the guillotine, the master of this story looks on with his own blank stare. The pleading eyes of Mademoiselle make contact with his own as the executioner slowly moves her hair and inhales the scent of her delicate neck. The Marquis? steady voice continues, ?How easily, dear reader, one changes from predator to prey! And how swiftly pleasure is taken from some and given to others? (Kaufman)! He is not just speaking of Mademoiselle but of himself, once the predator and now the caught and caged prey. A packed audience cheers and jeers with smiling faces once the shirtless executioner slowly and seductively bends her over placing her head gently in the guillotine. A body in a green dress separated from one of the many heads in a cart is passed over the crowd. Another cart of people to be executed, one looking like a disheveled version of the Marquis, are visibly distraught and sickened. In sharp contrast, the Marquis is composed and unmoved. His lack of outward emotion toward this long line of executions suggests a numbing madness.

Regardless of the Marquis? lack of emotion, he and Mademoiselle are inextricably connected as demonstrated by the film?s editing. An extreme close-up of Mademoiselle?s face captures a drop of bright, red blood that falls to her cheek from the guillotine blade. We cut to an extreme close-up of the Marquis looking out with one eye, the other obscured by a black window bar. His face is more gray than black, perhaps suggesting a clouded version of good with a definite black and evil streak. As he turns away, we enter with him into his space. We circle around a jar of fanned black quills interspersed with two of muted white, suggesting that, contrary to the man, his writing is more vile than good. He continues to write on a sheet more than half filled using a white quill while chains bind his hands. An aerial view of the execution mob is seen from Sade?s vantage point but only by us as he writes. Humming Claire de Lune along with the children in the street, the Marquis? quill releases a single drop of blood-red ink just as the guillotine blade begins to fall.?Our view enters the?flesh and blood sliced by the blade, a view that the Marquis does not get from his desk. What this editing works to say is that the Marquis? internalized experience of this French Reign of Terror is released through writing and the tragedy of Mademoiselle Renard is, in this case, his muse, and we are active participants as his audience.

This connection between the three of us becomes a significant source of the film?s realism. As Laura Mulvey explains:

To begin with (as an ending), the voyeuristic-scopophilic look that is a crucial part of traditional filmic pleasure can itself be broken down. There are three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences (the material existence of the recording process, the critical reading of the spectator), fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness and truth. (Mulvey)

No longer shall we follow Mademoiselle?s story for hers has come to an end. Instead, we follow the Marquis to Charenton Asylum for the Insane years later. It is the blood, red color of the execution scene follows us as well, unifying our connection and coating the inside of a cell as if to say that the internal workings of the Marquis? mind are blanketed with the culmination of all the deaths he has witnessed. The close-ups of eyes that first connected Mademoiselle and Sade now connect Sade and Charenton?s laundress, Madeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet). She slides the viewing panel on the heavy metal door open and calls for linens. Her eyes are centered in the open panel looking straight at us, but she cannot see the red that covers the inner walls. This is the Marquis cell and because Maddie is looking in at us, the audience members have just become lunatics.

This is the beginning of our time both as the asylum?s watched and the watchers. We begin by seeing limited parts of Sade, whether his eye through a circular hole in the door or his hands reaching through the laundry shoot. By the time the title of the film appears, our transformation is complete. From here on out we witness portions of the film one step removed and yet our experience becomes increasingly intimate. One example of this is when Bouchon, the executioner gone mad, is seen in his cell masturbating to his view of Madeleine through a hole in the wall. While he enjoys a peep at a girl, we are subject to deriving shock or pleasure from watching him watch her through our own hole in the wall. Regardless of our personal reaction, we have been made guilty of voyeurism and have a stake in the argument of whether or not we require censorship to protect us from ourselves.

It is now, in the unfolding of the film?s events that we are ready to assess censorship from a well-rounded standpoint. If fiction is a safe place to play out situations of vice, purging it as the asylum?s Abbe de Culmier (Joaquin Phoenix) instructs the Marquis to do, then the position of this film begins by leaning toward the Greek philosophy that art is cathartic. On the other side of the coin, because the power of the Marquis? story results in the death of Medeleine, incites the chaotic destruction of the asylum, and frees the residents to copulate in the pouring rain, Plato?s belief that art is dangerous also comes to fruition. Even the The Bible, as a text, is portrayed as a dangerous narrative means, God being accused of stringing his son up ?like a side of beef? making the Marquis fearful of what God might do to him if he succumbs to the word. The inclusion of this platonic argument asks the audience to truly examine all sides.

By partaking in such fiction, what does the debate surrounding censorship mean for and about the viewer? Kaufman says on the Cinema Review website:

I have always been fascinated by extreme literature? because it expands on our concept of what is human. And Sade more than anyone seems to demonstrate how extreme behavior can bring out hypocrisy in those who claim to be moralists. (“Production Notes: The Origins of Quills”)

We, the viewers are not left to our own idealistic assessments of what should and should not be. Kaufman is sure to make us get our hands dirty, tarnishing our own perceived halos. Forcing his audience to commit conscious acts of voyeurism, Kaufman does his best to remove that moralizing impulse we often feel in response to anything that appears to be dangerous, even fiction.

If this film proves anything, it?s that this argument is still going on today, whether through the resurrection an ancient criminal or the blaming of video game violence?for children acting like vengeful lunatics. Telling are the last lines of the film which echo an earlier sentiment: that to know virtue one must also know vice. Fiction offers that outlet. In the viewer?s ability to experience natural emotions as well as exercise restraint is where Kaufman?s condemnation of censorship is revealed and thus gains its power. The audience is given the opportunity to strongly sense their own personal desire to act upon certain wants coupled with an understanding that such wants are best satisfied through fiction rather than experienced in real life. In that rare event that some person acts out the fiction, as is the case of the murderous executioner, Bouchon, there is already a predisposition to violence that exists before the influence of fiction. One is likely to conclude after seeing this film, censorship be damned and damn the author too.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard. Looking At Movies: an Introduction to Film. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007.

Mulvey, Linda. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Sonoma State University. Aug. 1975. Sonoma State University. 23 Apr. 2008 .

“Production Notes: the Origins of Quills.” Cinema Review. 23 Apr. 2008 .

Quills. Dir. Philip Kaufman. Perf. Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine. DVD. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2000.

Travers, Peter. “Quills (2000).” Film.Com. Rolling Stone. 23 Apr. 2008 .

Wright, Doug. “Quills Script.” Screenplay.Com. 20 Dec. 2000. 15 Apr. 2008 .