Clearly, Stevi Costa is kind of perverse, and her academic interests apparently all stem from Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Doug Wright’s play Quills. Lo and behold, it’s ten years later, and here’s her re-view.

Last weekend, I went to my first academic conference and participated in a working session about the potentially corruptive power of the female body on the stage. When I got home, my husband and I sat down and watched Quills, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this week. Quills is my favorite movie of all time. I’m sitting under the poster in my office as I write this, in fact. I saw it at least three times in theatres and used to watch it regularly — maybe twice a year until four years ago or so. But it wasn’t until I rewatched it for this project that I (consciously) realized how much of an influence Quills has had on my academic life. Yes, I collect antique pens and love corsets and had a quill pen tattooed on my ankle on my 20th birthday. These are all clear traces this film has left on my cultural life, but I think I can also directly credit Quills with leading me to a place in which my job is to think about bodies, narratives, and marking.

I remember being mesmerized by the film’s depiction of the relationship between blood and ink, and the Marquis de Sade’s insistence that his “writing is as involuntary as the beating of [his] heart.” The film establishes this relationship with the title card shot of ink turning to blood, and continues to play it out as the Marquis loses his privileges to possess a pen in the asylum, writing with wine (metaphorical blood of Christ) on his bedsheets, then with his own blood on his clothing, and finally, in an act of defiance after his tongue is cut out, writing with his own excrement on the walls of his cell. These images of the corporeality of writing have long stuck with me, and I really believe that they’ve guided me down this particularly weird academic path I’ve taken. I love the idea that narratives, for the Marquis, come directly from his body and are executed with the body’s abjecta (or metaphoric abjecta). I see now that this is clearly echoed in my own work on tattooed ladies, whose bodies are permanently marked by the mixing of blood and ink, and whose tattoos become permanent markers of their abjection. What I love in particular in both the case of my tattooed ladies and in Quills is that the turn toward the abject seems to stem from a desire to narrativize the body itself — to refashion the body as a producer of narratives in the absence of traditional narrative forms. Alternately, both the tattooed body and the body of the Marquis de Sade incorporate into their bodies either by permanently marking the skin or by using the body’s abjecta to create narratives. I’m sure that many people find this film’s attention to bodies, orifices, wounds, and abjecta really grotesque, but for me it is completely fascinating. I mentioned that I work on tattooed ladies, but I am also interested in literary representations of deviant or abhorrent bodies: in the wound, the amputee, the freak. I’m doing a really poor job of explaining myself, but in this re-viewing of Quills, it suddenly became clear to me the point from which these inquiries arise: Thanksgiving weekend, 2000, in a darkened theatre in Northern California, watching a film about the Marquis de Sade.

So, in short, this movie is why I’m so fucking weird.

But in seriousness, I still find this film just as fascinating as I did ten years ago, although this time around I was less fixated on the Marquis’ pithy one-liners and much more interested in the way the film plays with genres. Quills hinges on a number of generic dichotomies, largely playing on the line between pleasure and pain. The opening sequence, in which the Marquis narrates one of his stories while an aristocrat is about to be beheaded, blends the romance genre with torture in a way I find totally stunning. But as it presents the audience with the notion that torture porn has been around a lot longer than we think it has (so gently the executioner removes her hair from her slender neck, shot in the languid camera style of a period romance), but the Marquis addresses the viewing audience as “Dear Reader,” hybridizing the genres of film and literature (and theatre . . . as this is adapted by the playwright himself). The narrative of the romance is disrupted the moment the young lady’s head is decapitated by the blade of the guillotine. In fact, narratives are frequently disrupted or interrupted by violent acts in Quills. I was particularly struck this time by Madeline’s romance with the publisher, which never gets to play out because of her murder. The play-within-the-play is disrupted by Bouchon’s attack on Madeline, and then, of course, there are the Marquis’ various narratives interrupted by the “violent” removal of his writing instruments — akin to amputation to a man who views his writing as a part of his corporeality. There’s a sense that these narratives have to be interrupted because of the kind of narratives they are: sexuality has to be controlled and regulated, and there are problems when it seeps out and contaminates the social body. To write about bodies in the naked way the Marquis does is clearly a social ill akin to being a transvestite, an arsonist, a rapist, a delusional man-bird, or obsessive-compulsive. I like the idea that the narratives produced in the film hold this power to contaminate the mind and body, and I still find this extremely compelling ten years later. Contaminating narratives like De Sade’s are such a threat in the film because they challenge the existing modes of power in the Napoleonic regime, in the church, and in the home. Those in power need “purity” in order to maintain their power. But for the powerless, the contaminating narrative allows for the appropriation and control of power. Just look at the power Simone acquires by reading De Sade’s Justine.

In this viewing, however, there are now a few things that I find problematic. I never noticed before that Royer-Collard locks Madeline in the laundry room while Bouchon mutilates and murders her. My husband has always found this character to be too broadly drawn, but I never minded until I noticed him bolt Madeline in to her doom. I know he’s a terrible, self-involved human being, and, in fact, a rapist like Bouchon, but locking Madeline in seems a tad too much, too melodramatic. (If he’d had a mustache, he would have twirled it as he bolted the door.) Likewise, all of the characters in this film are aware that Bouchon is too easily contaminated by De Sade’s narratives. They know this from the play-within-the-play when he first attacks Madeline and she scalds him with the iron in retaliation. So if Madeline and the Marquis knew this, why would they even include Bouchon in the telephone game that leads to Maddie’s death? I find it less problematic to include arsonist Dauphin. Even though the story did contain a reference to fire, the characters and the audience had no prior indication that Dauphin might start fires simply from hearing the word. Certainly, he didn’t when the Abbe told him that it’s much better to paint fires than to set them, so there would be no reason to believe that Dauphin would be contaminated by the narrative. But if the Marquis loved Madeline as he says he does, why would he risk her life by including Bouchon in the telephone game? Surely, the transvestite would have been a better bet. These things made me realize that the films major weakness is its treatment of Madeline, and the contrivances it makes just to do away with her. By including Bouchon in the telephone game and having Royer-Collard lock her in to the laundry, Madeline’s only narrative purpose becomes a catalyst for the decline in the Abbe’s sanity and a plot device to get the Marquis’ tongue removed.

But even with these major issues regarding the narrative’s use of Madeline, the film itself is so thematically and visually rich that I cannot help but love it. It remains number one on my list despite this flaw because of how important it has turned out to be in shaping my scholarship.

Free-Floating Thoughts:

  • So, I own a pair of thermal pajamas from Victoria’s Secret that have the company’s name written all over them in black script. I am not one to wear corporate logos on things, but I have to admit that I bought these because they reminded me of the Marquis’s word-covered suit.
  • I would very much like a footstool made of bones.
  • As a linguist, I cannot tell you how much I fear somehow damaging my tongue. This film might also be the source of the fear of hurting or losing my tongue. (I love the Saw movies, but whenever someone’s tongue or jaw gets ripped out, my own mouth hurts.) This is my biggest irrational fear.
  • I totally did a double take when I realized that the Sexy Architect Mr. Prouier is played by Vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer). Vampire Bill should always wear crazy-ass sideburns.
  • Kate Winslet’s boobs look incredible in this movie.
  • I find Joaquin Phoenix to be extremely attractive as the Abbe de Coumier. Maybe it’s the way that black frockcoat frames his harelip, or the particular liveliness in his lovely blue eyes, but this is his sexiest role ever. And as a Catholic School survivor, I cannot even begin to tell you how weird it is to say that.
  • Amelia Warner, who plays Simone, is so lovely. I am puzzled as to why she hasn’t been in more films.
  • My favorite part about the play-within-the-play is that Birdman and the Transvestite are actually pretty good actors. I mean, Birdman gives a great performance of Dr. Royer-Collard. Really.
  • More people need to use the phrase “flaxen quim.”
  • Also, let’s bring back the word “pikestaff.”
  • New favorite moment in the film is when the Marquis escapes his quarters in his newly crafted story-covered outfit and crashes the Charenton dining hall. It reminds me of Tod Browning’s Freaks because all the inmates at the asylum bang their hands on the table the way the Freaks do at Cleo and Hans engagement dinner.
  • How did I miss the midget prostitute that hits on Simone ten years ago?
  • Costuming irk: I still don’t understand why Royer-Collard feels the need to rip the back of Simone’s nightgown when he rapes her on their wedding night. This isn’t eXistenZ. He’s not going to insert himself into her back. Seems unnecessarily violent. The same effect could have been achieved by him forcing all of the fabric up around her neck.
  • I was really paying attention to the camera angles this time around. Lots of shots into rooms through peepholes, windows, or around corners. Great use of visual rhetoric to echo the line, “My, my, at Charenton, even the walls have eyes.”
  • Totally underappreciated character: The Marquise. I feel like the film doesn’t include as much of her as I wager the play does, but she’s definitely the most alive female character.
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