Thursday, December 28, 2000
Like the subjects of his movies, director Philip Kaufman has been controversial and frequently misunderstood.
He's tackled the upheaval in 1968 Czechoslovakia in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and directed the first film to receive an NC-17 rating, "Henry & June." He also helmed "The Right Stuff," about test pilots and the Mercury astronauts, and a 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." He even co-created action hero Indiana Jones with "Star Wars" mastermind George Lucas.
Now with "Quills," Kaufman tackles another "touchy" subject.
In a recent telephone interview, Kaufman states, "I've been married for 43 years (to screenwriter Rose Kaufman, who often collaborates with him). People look on me as 'the Sex Guy.' I'm not making these movies to make sex movies. 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' is in some ways more about the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia than it is about sex."
Nonetheless, with his previous track record, it's not surprising that he was tapped to direct the film adaptation of Doug Wright's play "Quills," a fictional account of the last days of the infamous French writer Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). The Marquis spent almost 30 of his 74 years in jails and asylums in part because of his writings such as "Justine" and "The 120 Days of Sodom." These included graphic depictions of sadomasochistic (the word 'sadism' is derived from his name) sex, vitriolic attacks on religion and a bleak, misanthropic view of humanity.
"I never really thought of doing a movie on him until I read Doug's story," Kaufman explains. "There are so many great essays on (de Sade). I started reading Simone de Beauvior and so many French philosophers who felt that he deserved re-evaluation. A friend of mine who is one of the world's leading (Jean-Jacques) Rousseau scholars thinks the Marquis is a wonderful writer because he is writing in response to Rousseau's vision of the 'noble savage.' (The Marquis) did not feel that Man was a noble savage ï¿½ more savage than noble he felt."
Kaufman adds, "As Doug Wright (who just received a Golden Globes nomination for his screenplay) says, I hope we've restored some of his humor to him. We wanted to give you a more full glimpse of the guy. We also wanted to show there's a danger with him as well. Maybe extreme literature can cause you problems. The liberal view would be that there should be no restraint whatsoever on expression. I don't know. In the end, are we (also) saying that repression can be the very thing that causes these disasters to happen? We leave that as an open question."
"Quills" may try to humanize de Sade, but the portrait the filmmakers and actor Geoffrey Rush ("Shine" and "Shakespeare in Love") paint of him is far from flattering. "While some would say that the Marquis is the expression of the liberal value, he is also kind of a reactionary figure," Kaufman says. "He is a stuffed peacock. He is disdainful. Geoffrey talks about him being like a 2-year-old child in a supermarket throwing a temper tantrum. There are glimpses of the Marquis where you detect a bit of humanity, but Geoffrey and character go into a rage if you detect it because (de Sade) wants to hide it at all times."
Kaufman has dealt with unabashed heroes, but he says there are links between them and the Marquis. "Even 'The Right Stuff' is about an extreme character in Chuck Yeager, who is obviously at the other end of the spectrum. He's a guy who does what no ordinary man would ever think of doing, going where the demons are and risking everything for that romantic abstract ideal, breaking the sound barrier. The Marquis risks it all to express what he wants to express, however unattractive that may be."
In some ways, Kaufman can identify with de Sade because his movie "Henry & June" was banned, as were many of de Sade's books. Blockbuster Video and other outlets still won't stock the film because of its "NC-17" rating. The rating has become merely a disguised replacement for "X." With "Henry & June," this is inappropriate because the characters spend as much time debating the merits of D.H. Lawrence's fiction as they do copulating.
"In the end, I felt betrayed by that thing because I felt that at first glance we had created NC-17 to allow adult films for adult audiences," he remembers. "I don't know why 'adult' has to be a curse word in America. While I can agree with what (Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph) Lieberman said that (R-rated) movies shouldn't be marketed to children, immediately everybody can say we should put restraints on Hollywood in general.
"What I really like about 'Quills' is that it deals with the underlying hypocrisy of all that stuff. (In 'Quills'), we give you the background of the French Revolution, but we show you that a far greater pornographer than the Marquis de Sade is history. The girl is put under the guillotine for all of her sins (at the beginning of the film). These public executions were the extreme form of terror, and they weren't 'NC-17'-rated because children could watch them," he says with a laugh.