Rough Cut – Rod Hewitt

“New, Old, and Forgotten – What Came Before ‘Quills’?, by Rod Hewitt”

What writers, what artists have not at one time or another believed themselves to be criminals? What artists, in discovering the hidden veils of their own souls, have not worn them as heroic garments and, in so doing, made themselves feel more alive than ever before? In Quills, the new film by Philip Kaufman, this sentiment of the romantic outlaw is washed across the screen with a beautiful acid.

Kaufman, if he is not the most under-rated director of his generation, is certainly the most under-appreciated. In his films, Kaufman can move from the primeval world to the dream world to the realistic world with the balletic touch of a butterfly. In the midst of a space journey in The Right Stuff, aborigines appear and throw light into the heavens, performing an act of magic and alchemy far superior to that of modern man. In his film The White Dawn, modern men become shipwrecked in the Arctic. They are rescued by Eskimos, living in a near dream state, who take these orphans into their world. And then these modern men, never truly able to live without destroying, must be destroyed themselves.

In “New, Old, and Forgotten,” we will look at Quills as well as two other Kaufman films: for the old film, his Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and for the forgotten, his only western, The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid (1972).

All three films share an outline, a series of beautiful, ghostly resemblances: Quills is a comedy of mad manners set in the French Revolution; The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an erotic dance of sensibility that takes place around the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia; and The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid is a cowboy film set in the aftermath of the Civil War. The first resemblance is that all three films are traced for us in mirrors. In Quills, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) appears for the first time in a mirror that multiplies him in all his intricacies. In Unbearable Lightness, the mirrors double and triple the characters as they face each other in their sexual complicities. In Northfield, Minnesota, the mirrors reflect not only the present but future: in Cole Younger’s mind, his own fate is hidden in a mirror he must find. All three films are also brought to their dramatic high points by inquisitions. In Quills, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) brings the force of society to bear upon the Marquis de Sade. In Unbearable Lightness, the Russians countermand reality for Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis). In Northfield, Minnesota, the Missouri State Legislature withdraws a promised amnesty, causing Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) to return to his outlaw world.

The final concurrent outline, the most perfect shade that the three movies share, is that in each, the predator becomes the prey. In Quills, this theme is stated in the opening scene: a young woman grows orgasmic as she is about to be put to death on the guillotine, and an unseen narrator (Rush) explains how quickly someone can go from being the predator to becoming the prey. Throughout the rest of the film, the Marquis de Sade and those who are charged by his imagination all take this journey from victimizer to victim.

In Unbearable Lightness, the serpentine Tomas is like a beautiful snake shifting in the grass. Perfectly aware of his selfish actions, he is drawn into his own web with a burnished narcissism. But then, as Tomas falls in love with Tereza (Juliette Binoche), he subsumes his identity and, in a sense, loses the armor of his ego and is ultimately erased from life. In Northfield, Minnesota, Cole Younger and his band at first preside over their inventive robberies — are heroes to children and grown-ups alike — and then are vanquished and humiliated despite their heroism and invention.

What brings Unbearable Lightness and Quills together is the eloquence with which Kaufman deals with betrayal. In both films, the real theme is not one person’s betrayal of another — it is the betrayal of life. Tomas will lie and he will betray his beloved wife but, ultimately, he will not betray those small pieces of honor that make up our souls, those tiny badges that keep us committed in a universe that is sometimes too cruel to bear. Tomas will not give in to the Russians on any level, and his role in the world is reduced from brain surgeon to field worker. De Sade is reduced from an underground writer and the magician of a mental institution to a corpse. The leader of de Sade’s inquisition, Dr. Royer-Collard, is far too weak, far too practical to be a devil. He is instead an institution, still alive today, a monstrous and simple complex of denial and its hypocrisy; simple in its urgings, yet complex in its forms. Royer-Collard not only betrays de Sade but, ultimately, all of life when he becomes the publisher of the books written by the man he has obliterated.

But the film that mostly directly parallels Quills is Kaufman’s lost, forgotten, and rarely seen film on the last days of the Younger-James Gang. The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, which some might call a revisionist western, is a treasure among film lovers who want to vaunt their knowledge of unknown film. The film accedes the boundaries of the western while remaining one of the most realistic films about the west ever made. Its story — which relates the ill-fated raid by Cole Younger and Jesse James and their gang on the bank in Northfield, Minnesota — is like that of Quills: It’s about the temperaments of two men.

Cole Younger is a man of vision, enchanted by the future, by technology and game and play, a man committed to sexuality and freedom. Jesse James (committed to the screen with fire and presence by the young Robert Duvall) — a former guerilla with Quantrill’s Raiders and known killer of women and children — is a self-righteous religious bigot who speaks in tongues, believes his messages come from the lord, who shuns contact with liquor and women although he effects his final escape dressed in women’s clothes. That the story is true is undeniable. History has left Cole Younger and his brothers adrift. Jesse James has become an icon of the American outlaw, but there is no exaggeration in the way Kaufman portrays him. James indeed wore women’s dresses a number of times — always with the excuse that he was in disguise — but the readiness of the costume, combined with the religious zealot capable of massacre, leaves us with a true monomaniac. He is the kind of man Americans admire, one whose contradictions are so vast that he is not only unexplainable, he will never be anything less than a mystery of our nature. Those who lie behind us in this puzzle are there to point us forward to the questions about ourselves and our souls.

And, at this juncture, Jesse James and the Marquis de Sade become silhouettes in the world of Kaufman.

In Quills, great license is taken with the life of the Marquis de Sade, who died in the Charenton institution at the age of 74. But strict realism is not at play here. Kaufman’s de Sade is fashioned out of men from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and de Sade has arrived in this new century carefully wrapped, a beautiful version of the need to exist sometimes purely on impulse.

Not a real artist with letters, de Sade was an artist of shock. Every generation needs a provocateur, a character who removes the boundaries of society and reality long enough to shock us, enflame us, and — for most of us — to cause us to want to destroy him. De Sade plays out his role in Kaufman’s film with a glee that would have fit beautifully in the operating room of Altman’s MASH.

Geoffrey Rush’s performance reminded me of George C. Scott’s as Patton, a man presiding over himself and his ego. At times, de Sade is unable to distinguish between his role and his real self. Rush’s de Sade, much like Patton, uses the implements at hand to create a knighthood for himself. The quills with which de Sade writes, when lost, give way to chicken bones; when that implement, too, is lost, the Marquis writes with his own excrement to continue creating his universe. In this story, never is writing anything less than the decisive fate from the body of the creator.

Kaufman creates a world in which de Sade becomes the orchestra conductor, and in which the other characters become instruments of his music — gleeful purveyors of his vision who sometimes add their own notes to a composition that, if perverse, is also deeply human and vulnerable.

But it is Kaufman’s skill that empowers this piece. Funny, hypnotic, rapturous, he keeps turning his tableaux in bold and beautiful shades. He takes the story from level to level, the way a dreamer moves from one dream into the next, and he continues to find meaning.

Great film is almost always about rebellion: from Star Wars to Gone with the Wind to a world in extreme like Quills. Kaufman has fashioned a film of rebellion and desire that can stand beside any film at any time, speaking not only for the need for those urges — the need for our desperate and vulnerable souls to find a path no matter where the darkness takes us — but speaking also for humankind.

You cannot close your eyes to this movie without having a shade, swift and wild, kissing your eyes, reminding you of what you may never know if you do not keep looking. This film is erotic and intimate; in creating a world of sacrificer and sacrificed, Quills is very close to being religious. Only a master can achieve this, and only a master can bring us back from this magic spell. The wand for his film is firm in Kaufman’s hand; few directors have ever ruled a kingdom this well.