Words are powerful. There is a reason that magic spells have incantations, that prayer is often spoken aloud, that meditation is accompanied with a mantra. Words name, collect, and contain all that is in our world, and all that we can imagine. They allow us to connect, explain, and wonder. They interpret, inspire, and, most powerfully, cause action. For instance, a recipe says to add three cups of flour, so what do you do? I’ll bet it involves a measuring cup and some flour.
Now, the debate over a word’s power to cause extreme action has been long and repetitive—today’s Marilyn Manson/school violence connection is last decade’s Catcher in the Rye/assassination. But should our words be censored, or even taken away, to prevent possible violence? This is the essential question in Quills, directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade.
One would expect eroticism and violence from a movie about Sade. After all, the term “sadism” is a tribute to his writings, which featured extreme erotic sadomasochism and led to his psychological commitment. This is where the movie begins, with the Marquis rather comfortably imprisoned in a sanitarium and reliant upon a laundry-maid (Kate Winslet) to smuggle his stories out. In the beginning, most of the eroticism is heard through voice-over rather than seen, and any violence is inflicted upon the Marquis himself, in conjunction with the discovery of his continued writing.
As the movie progresses, Sade is stripped of everything: writing instruments, paper, desk—even bed sheets, when it is discovered he has written his latest piece on them with a chicken bone dipped in wine. Eventually, even his body is stripped bare, after using a sliver of mirror and his own blood to write on his clothes.
And here the violence takes hold of the movie. Because the Marquis won’t stop writing, and his final story, whispered to his disturbed neighbors, leads to a total destruction of life, morality, and love.
Yet despite this final annihilation, I find myself cheering on the Marquis. He is a champion for free speech, fighting for the right to express himself. He is a realist who asserts the existence of a dark side in everyone, even the young priest (Joaquin Phoenix). But most of all, he is a writer, enthralled with the power of language, unable to silence himself despite the knowledge that his own words will lead to his downfall. For Sade, no act, however violent or erotic, can equal the written story. The true power of words, then, is that they transcend the act they chronicle, as well as any act they may cause, because they endure—as the Marquis will endure, both through this movie and his work.