A Dirty Little Movie That Doesn’t Do It for Me

Philip Kaufman’s Quills , from a screenplay by Doug Wright based upon his play, has taken so many liberties with the life and death of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)–particularly his last days at Charenton Asylum–that he becomes as much an icon of civil liberty as the literary originator of what we now term “Sadism.” The key to both the play and the movie is the canny title, which does not merely denote the writing implement of a certain period but emblazons it as a symbol of writing behind prison walls. Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Wright have executed an end run around the censors by placing the scabrous words of the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) on the sound-track as if they constituted a summons to liberation.

I must confess at this point that I have often had problems reviewing Mr. Kaufman’s films because he has taken his material so far out on the cutting edge that there is little (if anything) to compare it with: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Henry and June (1990) come immediately to mind. His mixture of playfulness and earnestness emits mixed signals to the audience. In Quills , for example, the Marquis may be playing a joke on us with his literal obscenities, read aloud to the shocked expressions of Napoleon (Ron Cook) and Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who come off as squares. To emphasize the point, Mr. Kaufman ridicules both Napoleon’s short stature and Royer-Collard’s reportedly small penis.

Unfortunately, Quills descends to one-sided melodrama with its magnification of two real-life characters into martyrs of malignant repression. The virginal Charenton laundress, the 17-year-old Madeleine (Kate Winslet), serves as the Marquis de Sade’s literary conduit to the outside world. She is lusted after by the Marquis and chastely loved by the Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). Thus, Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Wright have created a sexual triangle where none existed before, and with it a wild melodrama in which Coulmier goes mad in a burst of necrophilia and Dr. Royer-Collard emerges cynically triumphant.

We are a long way from the political dialectics of de Sade’s time. Quills narrows his concerns to the anal, the vaginal and the penile, and Mr. Kaufman delivers once more on the visual correlatives. But the Marquis lived in a cruel and depraved age, and had witnessed the horrors of the guillotine as one of its prospective victims. For lawgivers like Napoleon, the issue with the Marquis was how he described these evils on paper with an enthusiastic complicity. In this respect, Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Wright can be said to be denouncing hypocrisy in Napoleon’s time and our own.

Why, then, am I so reluctant to applaud Mr. Kaufman’s civic service, particularly when the performances of Mr. Rush, Ms. Winslet, Mr. Phoenix, Mr. Caine and Billie Whitelaw as Madeleine’s mother are so exemplary? Mr. Kaufman is to be commended for allowing Mr. Caine to modulate the evil in his character with a suggestion of tactical intelligence and bureaucratic shrewdness. As for Ms. Winslet, I am still waiting for the puritanical Oscar voters to reward her courageously full-bodied incarnations of complex women. Perhaps my problem is more with the Marquis de Sade than with Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Wright. What little I have read of his prose pornography reminds me of what bores me in hard-core pornography on the screen–endlessly exultant repetitiousness without any metaphorical invention, lazy diabolism without a shred of psychological insight, masturbatory fantasy without any feeling of otherness. These are the impressions I have of the Marquis, and nothing Mr. Kaufman has done has changed my opinion in the slightest.

Actually, Quills turns melodramatically ambivalent at the end by suggesting a possible effect on behavior by anti-social expression in the arts. But the argument is muddled and emotionally arid. I am reminded of the late Mayor Jimmy Walker giving the foes of censorship a comic argument with his quip that no girl ever got into trouble reading a book, to which Wilfred Sheed later retorted in Esquire that many girls have indeed gotten into trouble by believing what they read in books. Vide Madame Bovary.

Wedding Singers

Martin Davidson’s Looking for an Echo , from a screenplay by Jeffrey Goldenberg, Robert Held and Martin Davidson, takes us back to the doo-wop days from 1956 to 1964 in Brooklyn, not by recreating this pre-rock, pre-Beatles, pre-Stones era but by mourning its demise 30 years later through one of its disillusioned legends, Vince Pirelli (Armand Assante). Vince is now a 50-year-old widowed bartender with three kids: Anthony (Edoardo Ballerini), a rising musical talent; Tommy (David Vadim), a policeman; and Tina (Christy Romano), a 14-year-old victim of leukemia. Diane Venora plays Joanne, Tina’s attending nurse and eventually Vince’s main squeeze.

The only other major characters are the onetime backup singers to Vinnie and the Dreamers, the hit doo-wop group of yesteryear. The most embittered among them is Vic Spidero (Joe Grifasi), who is still angry that Vince broke up the group when they were admittedly slipping. Vic still does small gigs at weddings and such with Vince, but it isn’t the same. The other ex-Dreamers have adjusted to life better than Vic, and they gather to help celebrate Vince’s 50th birthday. These are Augie (Tome Mason), Nappy (Tony Demison) and Pooch (Johnny Williams). On one last fling in Atlantic City, these three surviving Dreamers have to keep Vic and Vince from throttling each other over their lost dreams.

Eventually, Vince commits himself to Joanne, the gallantly cheerful Tina survives a life-threatening crisis and Vince and Vic are reconciled. Looking for an Echo ends up making me nostalgic not for doo-wop, which came and went without my paying much attention, but instead for the kind, generous and decent characters in old movies who instinctively did the right thing. Ms. Venora and Mr. Assante are especially nice together.

When a Man Loves Too Many Women

Robert Altman’s Dr. T & the Women , from a screenplay by Anne Rapp, reunites the team responsible for Cookie’s Fortune (1999), which I did not like very much. Hence my delay in catching up with Dr. T , since I do not enjoy bashing a director as admirable as Mr. Altman. To my surprise, Dr. T is quite wonderful, and not the least of its delights is the much-abused Richard Gere, in the seriocomic role of a Dallas gynecologist who finds himself engulfed in the world of womanhood until he can no longer think straight. Mr. Altman and Ms. Rapp enter the Swiftian world of savage satire by exaggerating the incidence of females in one male’s existence.

In addition to his deranged wife Kate (Farrah Fawcett) and his two perverse daughters, Connie (Tara Reid) and Dee Dee (Kate Hudson), Dr. T is saddled with his love-sick nurse Carolyn (Shelley Long), his alcoholic sister Peggy (Laura Dern) and her female brood, Dee Dee’s lesbian lover Marilyn (Liv Tyler), who disrupts Dee Dee’s wedding, and more than two dozen female patients and staff members, each of whom always seems to be clamoring for his attention. There is an apparently sensible romance brewing between Dr. T and Bree (Helen Hunt), the country-club golf pro, but I can’t tell you what happens there.

Dr. T does get a break of sorts by going out hunting with the guys, but these interruptions in Dr. T’s woman-dominated routines are even more ridiculous and frustrating than the rest of Dr. T’s chaotic life. Some critics have complained that Dr. T & the Women is misogynistic, but I think it is no more so than Buster Keaton’s brilliant Seven Chances (1925). Mr. Altman is never condescending to the women, only somewhat fearful of their amazing power and persistence. And he remains the greatest polyphonic director of our time, perhaps of all time. Just give him a swirl of humanity and he shines.