Stoned Thoughts About Movie Shit

Currently Watching: Quills and The Libertine


by Steven T. Bramble


In this crazy mixed-up world of ours, 2000’s Quills, in which Geoffrey Rush logs a sympathetic depiction of the Marquis de Sade, has been all but forgotten, and 2004’s The Libertine, in which Johnny Depp plays the hatefully defiant poet and playwright Earl of Rochester, somehow garnered the reputation of being a notably bad movie. I don’t get it. Both fucking rule.

For starters, Quills flouted a superb cast. There’s Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine. I mean, fuck. Granted, Quills is the flashier, more Hollywood affair of the two, but the movie’s attempt at mainstream appeal actually just impresses me all the more. This is precisely the type of movie we would never get nowadays—the financial viability of the subject matter along with the historical obscurity of the main character would likely earn it a summary execution by studio firing squad. (There are a couple of series on Netflix that might come close, Trotsky and Freud, but both are foreign-produced.)

The movie is basically a perfect little aquarium of the world and ideas of the Marquis de Sade, though very much reconfigured to taste. Think historical fiction, not biopic. The Marquis—namesake for the word sadism, for anyone who may not know—locked away in the Charenton insane asylum in the wake of the French Terror, feverishly penning books of philosophic pornography that he then smuggles to underground publishers, royally pissing off the incipient Napoleon. Wright and Kaufman managed to slip a healthy amount of perversion past their Fox Searchlight minders: mmf threesomes, dildos, dicks and necrophilia, plus atheism and an unhappy ending.

Ultimately, though, this is not the true Sade of absolute negation, nor the purely evil Sade of aristocratic torture and sociopathy evidenced in the almost unwatchable Salò. Instead we get the Sade of psychic dissonance. Despite all the darkness, the feeling you’re likely to get by the end is nothing more hard-hitting than what you might feel at the conclusion of The Green Mile or Titanic, primarily due to a ridiculous closing sequence that had no business making it into the final cut of the film.

That’s where The Libertine comes in. You may remember this artifact as the subject of complete audience disdain. The movie has a rating of 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the few critics who gave the movie their blessing made sure to qualify their appreciation with a whole bunch of asides meant to reassure the reader that the whole thing actually did suck.

Well, they’re all a bunch of cheap fucking morons who should be strung upside-down and flogged by Republican senators.

Again, I’m surprised the movie got made in the first place. Now we’re dealing with a figure altogether obscure, in a time period totally closed off from almost any touchstone of typical historic interest, yet the film does more, and is more, than most.

First, I really appreciate the director’s near-total disinterest in contextualizing anything for the viewer. Apart from a few explanatory placards at the outset, we get dropped into an unfamiliar world that plays out on the screen as if it doesn’t give a shit about you, and hardly knows you’re there. From what I gather, this John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, was one of the most famous wits and libertines of his generation—I’ve never fucking heard of him. The values the Earl espouses are familiar: lust over love, complicated aristocratic leanings, blasé criminality, God-hating atheism. Johnny Depp, for those who are sometimes justifiably distracted by his whole Johnny Deppness, can be a difficult sell at this stage of his career. In this movie, he’s nothing less than genius.

The entire thing, from start to finish, consists of florid conversation that is as difficult to follow as it is beautifully, brilliantly written. One viewing really doesn’t give you the full picture. This is more of a complicated puzzle with so much detail you’re liable to see and hear new things at least several times through. Most of the dialogue revolves around a coherent philosophical sun, portraying an epoch and a pathos and a politics with impressive nuance.

For those who have seen the movie and disagree, I present this evidence: try pointing out the indisputable villains and heroes of the whole thing. There are none. There is no childish moral leading-of-the-hand as we find in Quills, very little romanticizing of one over the other. The Earl’s neglected, pliable wife, who with a less skillful director might be portrayed as nothing more than a nagging hindrance, comes back at the end of the movie as a magnanimous, intelligent force. The king, who could easily have been nothing more than a magnet for audience ire, comes off as a liberal monarchist first and power-mad tyrant second. The main character himself finishes out by going sober, converting to Christianity, giving a full-throated defense of the monarchy, and being harshly outdone artistically by the woman he loved.

I’m not saying The Libertine is perfect. There are cartoonish scenes, ridiculous lines and overdramatic deliveries. But goddamn, someone here is guilty of chucking the baby out with the bathwater. Why did these films about dandyish libertine philosophers meet with such critical prejudice? Honestly, just watch them and you’ll know.

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