Quills & Poison Pens

Since its opening a few weeks ago, the film Quills has enjoyed both good reviews and better-than- expected commercial success. I say "better-than- expected" because of its subject: the Marquis de Sade. The star, Geoffrey Rush, has been nominated for a "best actor" Oscar. He may honestly deserve the award. But that would be just about the only honest thing about this movie. Moviegoers whose knowledge of the Marquis is limited to what they see in Quills would have little idea of why his name is synonymous with cruelty -- the source of the word "sadism." Most of the movie is set in an asylum where the sixty-nine-year-old de Sade is imprisoned, presumably because of his writing. The clear intent is to portray the Marquis as a martyr in the cause of free speech -- oppressed by both the Church and secular authority. The problem is that the real Marquis de Sade was never imprisoned for anything he wrote. He was in the asylum because his mother-in-law, tired of his mistreatment of her daughter, arranged to have him confined at her expense. This misrepresentation sets the tone for how the film treats its subject. Nearly every significant detail of the story either distorts the historical record or is a fabrication intended to endear de Sade to moviegoers. The most notable example is the film's depiction of the Marquis himself. The de Sade of Quills is an Age- of-Reason Larry Flynt. He is a pornographer whose work is too sexually explicit for his sexually- repressed contemporaries -- especially the authorities. There's no exploration of the sexual violence that is central to the Marquis' work. Viewers aren't told that, in De Sade's work, the link between sex and cruelty is unbreakable, or that qualms about hurting, and even killing, another person must not stand in the way of sensual pleasures. Or that, as de Sade put it, "guilt is an illusion." Nor are viewers told that de Sade's commitment to these ideals transcended literature: The hero and "martyr" of this film tortured and poisoned real-life women. The question is: Why the whitewash? Why go to all this trouble to rehabilitate one of the most notorious men in Western history? The answer, as is often the case, has more to with our time than with de Sade's. And this time no inference is necessary. Director Phillip Kaufman told Sight and Sound magazine that a large part of the inspiration for the film came from following the Clinton impeachment scandal. He said that he saw a parallel between de Sade's principal tormentor in the film and independent counsel Kenneth Starr. In the worldview represented by the film, sexual repression is, if not the greatest evil, one of the greatest. Those who stand for sexual expression and license are the good guys, and those who oppose it are the bad guys. Adherents to this worldview are so committed to it that they are even willing to embrace a fiend like de Sade. Well, regardless of what happens at the Oscars, there's one award I'm ready to bestow on Quills: best example of why history is best learned from a book, not from a Hollywood movie. For further reference: Last, Jonathan. "Cheap Quills: The Marquis de Sade Does Hollywood." Weekly Standard, 29 January 2001. ----- Touch the future of the Kingdom of God by making a commitment to a planned gift. Prison Fellowship has professional planned giving staff to help you be a good steward of the blessings God has given to you. Please call us toll-free at 1-877-PFM-GIVE, or email us at <> for more information. -----


Chuck Colson



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