We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

It is unseemly, of course, to compare Marcel Proust and the Marquis de Sade, France’s consummate novelist and its supreme deviant. Still, the two have more in common than the coincidental openings this week of two films that meld the authors’ respective lives and lit. Both movies lift the pen as well as the lash, alternating scenes of writers scribbling with scenes of floggers scourging, and each indirectly chronicles the end of an era. The crucial difference is that Raoul Ruiz’s Time Regained amplifies the affinities between Proust’s novel and cinema, whereas Philip Kaufman’s Quills reduces Sade’s work and its implications to a simplistic theater piece.

Time Regained is named for the last volume of the novel widely known in English as Remembrance of Things Past, but it doesn’t restrict itself to that installment. More significantly, Ruiz—unlike Volker Schlöndorff, who adapted to the screen a section of the first volume, Swann’s Way—doesn’t limit himself to one strand of Proust’s epoch-sized tapestry. He wants it all. That’s impossible, of course, even in a nearly three-hour movie. (The director cut some 45 minutes before the film’s 1999 Cannes debut.) But even devoting three hours to each of the seven volumes would be inadequate.

Profoundly self-conscious, Time Regained is not just the story of life among a Parisian smart set that includes the semi-respectable Odette (Catherine Deneuve); her daughter, Gilberte (Emmanuelle Béart); the composer Morel (Vincent Perez); his sometime lover Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich); the bisexual Saint-Loup (Pascal Greggory); and the possibly bisexual Albertine (Chiara Mastroianni), the object of the author’s tortured jealousy. It also recounts the vivid inner life of a man the film calls only the “narrator,” embodied by five different performers. Marcello Mazzarella, a spitting image of the best-known photographs of Proust, impersonates the narrator (known as “Marcel” to the novel’s readers) at midlife, but other actors play him as a boy, a youth, and an old man, while the director Patrice Chéreau reads Proust’s words in voice-over.

The characters’ various dalliances, betrayals, feuds, and hidden passions are not the film’s essential subject, just as they are not the book’s. Indeed, it’s a bit surprising when Ruiz’s Marcel, wandering a Paris that’s blacked out for World War I, follows Charlus into a male brothel, where he watches the imperious baron being whipped. (This incident comes not from Time Regained but from Sodom and Gomorrah, the volume in which Proust characteristically introduces the subject of his homosexuality by ascribing

gayness to other characters.) The sequence is jarringly visceral for a film that generally drifts through the past as if through the novelist’s memory, which the director captures—and analogizes—with new inventions of Proust’s time: the photograph, the magic lantern, and the cinematograph.

Memory, of course, is one of Proust’s great themes, a preoccupation he shares with countryman Alain Resnais. Inevitably, Time Regained suggests Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, another view of haunted salons populated by dressed-up socialites whose existence seems oddly unreal and out of time. (Ruiz acknowledges the connection with a joke, casting Marienbad scripter Alain Robbe-Grillet in a small part.) Like Resnais’ film, Time Regained is bewitching and bewildering, a movie that seems to both demand and defy repeated viewings.

I wonder if, like Marienbad, Time Regained will gain depth but lose mystery with subsequent watching. Perhaps it’s better to simply surrender to the flow of images that Ruiz presages—another visual analogy—with the credit-sequence shots of rushing water. One common complaint among the film’s detractors is that its story is impossible to understand without having read Remembrance of Things Past. On one level that’s surely true, yet there were times during the film when I thought I might have been better off if I hadn’t read the book; trying to hold on to what I knew of the narrative was more distracting than helpful.

Ruiz’s previous movie was the playfully trashy Shattered Image, a split-consciousness thriller that suggested a straight-to-video version of a Resnais film. If only for its costumes, locations, and music, Time Regained is much more Masterpiece Theatre, but it has a bristling vitality despite its often claustrophobic circumstances. (Proust famously locked himself in a cork-lined room to battle his hypochondria and write his magnum opus.) The camera is ever-moving—gliding, some have suggested, like a Proustian sentence—and the transitions frequently rhyme visually or thematically, so they play like the famous epiphany that brought the past rushing back to Proust, inspiring him to write. That’s fitting, because Time Regained doesn’t want to present the story of the novel so much as to conjure the rush of jumbled, poignant recollections that instigated it.

Philip Kaufman and the Marquis de Sade are not really soul mates. From The Unbearable Lightness of Being to Henry & June and now Quills, Kaufman has specialized in literary softcore, celebrating the sort of authors who could compel Juliette Binoche, Uma Thurman, and now Kate Winslet to take off their clothes. But Sade’s enthusiasm for sexual torture makes him a considerably more problematic figure than Milan Kundera or Henry Miller—which is one of the essential things Kaufman’s film seeks to conceal.

Adapted by Doug Wright from his own play, Quills is based very loosely on real events and actual characters: Depraved aristocrat and notorious author Sade (Geoffrey Rush) was indeed sent to the asylum at Charenton, which was really run by the benign Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). While incarcerated, Sade met a teenage laundress named Madeleine (Winslet), as well as Dr. Antoine Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who took a much less tolerant view of Sade than did Coulmier. What happens among these four in Quills, however, is fiction, designed to address modern issues of censorship and artistic expression. In fact, the movie’s moral is so contemporary that Sade should have been played by Eminem.

Wright’s script supposes that Justine, Sade’s first published novel, was issued while its author was held at Charenton, its pages smuggled out by the virginal but playfully naughty Madeleine. (In fact, it appeared during a period when the French Revolution had rendered Sade a free man.) The film’s Coulmier has allowed Sade to write but not to publish, so he’s chagrined when Royer-Collard arrives at the asylum with a copy of the newly printed novel. The infamous inmate’s writing materials are confiscated, leading him to write first with wine, then with his own blood, and finally with his own excrement. Attempting to stifle Sade’s prose ultimately leads to disaster, proving that the conservative Royer-Collard is wrong and that the liberal Coulmier—who in an early scene counsels a brush-wielding pyromaniac that “it’s far better to paint fires than to set them”—is right.

You needn’t endorse censorship, however, to recognize Quills as a setup. The film doesn’t just extol Sade’s writing as a liberating force; it also contrives to show that Royer-Collard is more perverse than his patient. The old doctor takes a teenage bride, the innocent Simone (Amelia Warner), and brusquely deflowers her on their wedding night; later, he has Madeleine flogged. (Thus both the enthusiasms that sent Sade to jail, his corruption of young women and his penchant for whipping them, are transferred from the marquis to his antagonist.) Kaufman and Wright don’t stop there. They propose that Justine—the nasty, tiresome tale of a hapless young woman who continually falls into the clutches of men who want to torture and eventually kill her—is the sort of book that frees the spirits of teenage girls. Madeleine relishes the novel, even reading it aloud to her blind mother, and when Simone gets a copy, it inspires her to take a lover and leave her husband.

Thus Quills’ frenzied last act is essentially a high school showdown in period costume: The uptight class president brutally attacks the caustic jester who has alienated the affections of the president’s cheerleader girlfriend. (Sade infuriates Royer-Collard by staging a play obviously based on the doctor’s new marriage.) Madeleine’s visits to Sade’s cell initially suggest The Silence of the Lambs, and the movie’s finale rises to the hysterical pitch of Rush’s Hannibal Lecter-esque performance. Coy intimations of necrophilia aside, the film ends in the mode of an old-dark-house movie, with thunder crashing and murderous madmen on the loose—the worst of them all, of course, being Royer-Collard.

Such glib paradoxes are essential to Quills: Those who pretend to good are truly evil, the sexually perverse are possessed by chaste love, and the innocent are sustained by thoughts of evil. “If I wasn’t such a bad woman on the page, I couldn’t be such a good woman in my life,” explains Madeleine. Nice try, Slim Shady. This drama of not very many ideas requires its literary-minded viewers to accept that any embattled author’s bark is worse than his bite. In fact, though, even if Sade didn’t commit all the outrages he imagined in his books, he was repeatedly sent to jail not for what he wrote but for what he did. CP