Sean P. Means for the Salt Lake Tribune, February 2
Lorien Haynes for Film Review magazine, February issue
OK! Magazine, January 26 issue
Mary F. Pols for the Modesto Bee, January 26
Ananova Entertainment News review, January 26
Review from the Observer, January 21
Review by Chris Jarmick, added January 20 (praise for Kate)
Neil Norman for This is London, January 19
Neil Smith for Popcorn News, January 19
Ian Nathan for Empire Magazine, February issue
Andrew O'Hagan for the UK Telegraph, January 19
Anthony Quinn for the UK Independent, January 19
Peter Bradshaw for the UK Guardian, January 19
Amber Cowan for the UK Times, January 18
Adam Mars-Jones for the UK Times, January 18
George Perry for BBC Movies, January 15
Richard Jobson for Scotland on Sunday, January 14
Zak Salih for U-Wire, January 11
Alison Tweedie-Perry for About Film, January 8
Betsy Pickle for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, January 8
John Urbancich for the Sun News, January 8
Julie Caniglia for the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages, January 8
Tobias Petersen for Pop Matters, January 8
Gene Armstrong for the Arizona Daily Star, January 5
February 2: From the Salt Lake Tribune:
"'Quills' Is More Than a Sadistic Pleasure," by Sean P. Means
Whatever the opposite of writer's block is, the Marquis de Sade had it. Words -- particularly dirty words -- poured out of him, words of such obscene sexuality and violence that the powers that be (namely, Napoleon Bonaparte) were determined to put a stop to it. That's the principal conflict in "Quills," director Philip Kaufman's lush and lusty account of the Marquis' later years -- and a telling allegory of persecution and moral hypocrisy.
The Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) has enrolled himself in an insane asylum, where he scribbles his naughty prose under the tolerant eye of the asylum's director, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). The Abbe sees the Marquis' writing as therapy. But when his latest novel, Justine, is smuggled out of the asylum by the earthy chambermaid Madeleine (Kate Winslet) and published in Paris, Napoleon puts a new man in charge of the asylum.
That man is Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a mean old moralizer who takes away the Marquis' paper and quills. No matter -- he will use wine, blood or his own excrement as pen and his linens, clothing and cell walls as paper. The battle of wills escalates and claims victims along the way, including the Abbe and Madeleine. Meanwhile, Royer-Collard's own child bride (Amelia Walker), in one of the movie's ironic jokes, becomes the Marquis' No. 1 fan.
Rush, the Oscar winner for "Shine," plays the Marquis -- whose ideas are depicted here as more about sex and less about violence than the historical record shows -- as a mad jester, tweaking the noses of the powerful. Rush is having as a grand time of it as de Sade, licking his lips between quips like a frog eyeing a low-flying insect. He gets great support from Winslet, who brings a hearty vitality to her peasant role; from Phoenix, as a priest whose faith is shaken by what he sees and feels; and by Caine, an imperious and single-minded persecutor -- a Kenneth Starr complex of the highest order.
Kaufman and screenwriter Doug Wright, who adapted his own play (and who also was responsible for the work-in-progress "I Am My Own Wife," performed at Sundance last month), make the point that what de Sade most needed in life was to be tormented (hey, they don't call it "sadism" for nothing), and that his writing was energized when people tried to stop it. Freedom of expression is a hydraulic process -- you try to push it down, it just oozes out somewhere else.
January 27: From the February issue of Film Review magazine:
Review by Lorien Haynes (5 stars) --
Stunning, devastating, sadistic and dark, Quills shocks, provokes, revolts and disturbs. This is a quite brilliant film. In his first feature for seven years, director Philip Kaufman deftly uses the incarceration of the Marquis de Sade, and the subsequent withdrawal of his writing privileges, as a marvelous argument for freedom of speech.
Geoffrey Rush is de Sade, rippling with dry wisdom and humour. Imprisoned in an asylum run by the ever-virtuous Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), he provokes the wrath of Napoleon when he illegally publishes the pornographic novel Justine. Unable to curb the continual smuggling of de Sade' smut into the outside world (care of laundry maid Kate Winslet), Napoleon employs hard line psychiatrist Dr. Royer Collard (Michael Caine) to enter the madhouse and suppress this literary zeal. Royer Collard's supercilious presence sparks a radical chain of events. De Sade becomes ever more provocative. Coulmier finds his priesthood threatened by his love for Madeleine (Winslet) and Collard himself is exposed as a sexual hypocrite who abuses his child-bride. What ensues is an unseemly degeneration from purgatory into pure hell.
What Kaufman achieves here is a depiction of the literary equivalent to the current debates on film and video instigating violence. De Sade's work is shown, on the one hand, to free the sensual spirit and serve as a form of mental sexual deviance - a release for the repressed. Alternatively it serves as a corrupting force for those whose psychosis are fired by it and who act out their desires. Virtue, vice, bitterness and vulnerability all co-exist in this world - an apt commentary on the human condition.
But holding up a mirror to nature is always a risk, particularly as this vision of humanity is drenched in nihilism. To counteract this, Doug Wright's script is imbued with vicious humour. And the conviction of the performances from Caine, Rush, Winslet and Phoenix make for compelling viewing. Even beyond the impressive leads, the film is saturated with talent, from Caine's architect, Prouix (Stephen Moyer), who puts bone fide sexual charisma into the film, to newcomer Amelia Warner as the ripe child-bride.
Kaufman is back on form after the dubious Henry and June and the overlong epic The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In his hands Quills simply leaps from one electrical moment to the other.
Yet this won't please all. Quills is too long, and its degeneracy will repel many. Entirely shot in half-light, its darkness creates a terrifying sense of unease, leaving one longing for light. The madness that seeps through this 19th Century asylum could lead one to Prozac - mind you it's a great ad for the flaws surrounding care in the community. Sadly, the end is somehow heavy handed and unsatisfactory - something the majority of the film isn't.
What is inherently fascinating, however, is how this film will stand in the current marketplace. It will either be embraced as a work of art and be awarded by the Academy in March, or it will prove as alienating as its subject matter. Winslet, Caine and Phoenix will act as a commercial draw and yet this might disappoint an audience expecting a mainstream film. Quills may suffer from this contradiction. I hope it doesn't. Its messages and meaning are universal and it's about time the general public rose to the challenge Quills present.
January 27: From the January 26th issue of OK! Magazine:
'Film of the Week' (4 of 5 stars)
Even when he was locked up in a lunatic asylum, the Marquis de Sade - Geoffrey Rush, back on Oscar-winning form - was causing serious bother. With the help of a buxom maid, beautifully played by Kate Winslet, he smuggled his very naughty manuscripts from behind bars to his publisher, who was conveniently waiting, on horseback, outside the asylum.
While his erotic essays were the talk of the town, they also upset no less a person than Napoleon, who was so angered by them that he sent a doctor - Michael Caine - to sort out the wayward Marquis. The doctor, who arrives at the asylum with his young wife - played by a talented new face to watch, Amelia Warner - is, it transpires, even more nasty and depraved than the aristocrat whom he has been ordered to treat. Deprived of writing materials by the medic, whose methods are of the kill or cure variety, the Marquis resorts to ingenious and horrific substitutes for pen and ink in order to keep writing the sort of stuff that might make Larry Flynt blush.
At once enthralling and disturbing, Quills - which is based on a stage play - is not a film that will suit all tastes. Indeed, some may find much of the subject matter quite unsettling. However, there is no doubt that this is a classily made, intelligently written and sumptuously acted film, which, in the final analysis, has more to do with censorship than sex. That said, there is a fair helping of sex on screen, notably when the priest in charge of the asylum - Joaquin Phoenix - consummates his lust for the luckless maid.
It's fair to say that Quills deserves some kind of recognition come Oscar time, but will it prove too hot for the Academy?
January 26: From the Modesto Bee:
"Academy Award Nominee is Written All Over 'Quills'," by Mary F. Pols, Knight Ridder Newspapers
In the brief prologue to the startlingly rich "Quills," a man's voice tells us, "I've a naughty little tale to tell," and because this is a movie about the Marquis de Sade, we assume we're going to see one of his many pieces of pornographic writing come to life.
There's a beautiful woman, trembling with anticipation as her clothes are being ripped off by a burly, masked man. This must be an example of the sadism the Marquis gave his name to, right?
When it turns out to be something entirely different, there's a fresh sense of anticipation on our parts, because "Quills" director Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") obviously has some tricks up his sleeve.
At every turn, that anticipation is met, with taut pacing, delicate, unobtrusive foreshadowing and a series of impeccable performances, unforgettable for their passion. There are parts of "Quills" that feel like a farce, scenes where giggling girls gossip behind their hands and broad humor takes center stage. It's bawdy and so free with nudity, including a full frontal appearance by its star, Geoffrey Rush, that it's a wonder it escaped the clutches of an NC-17 rating. But at its core, it is a drama, a tragedy even, intent on posing philosophical questions about the creative process, an artist's need for expression and the fear society has of those on its fringe. Writing can free us, if we are given the freedom to write, Kaufman seems to be telling us.
"Quills" is reminiscent of "Amadeus," in both its playfulness and its serious scope. Based on Doug Wright's off-Broadway play, "Quills" is a somewhat fictionalized account of the last years of the Marquis de Sade's life, when he was locked up in Charenton Asylum, an institution for the criminally insane.
The marquis (Rush) continues to write pornography, smuggling it out for publication with the help of a young laundress (Kate Winslet) who admires him. She uses his writings as a means to get through the long, arduous days at the asylum.
The marquis has an ally of sorts in the priest who runs Charenton, the Abbe Coulmier, played by Joaquin Phoenix. The abbe considers writing therapy for the marquis -- by writing about his darkest fantasies, perhaps he'll relieve himself of the need to play them out -- although the abbe has no idea the lovely Madeleine is carrying out the marquis' manuscripts with his dirty sheets.
There's a freak show component to the asylum scenes that's worrying at first; is Kaufman going for cutsie crazies? Thankfully, he never turns the inmates into pets. When the film builds to its heart-pounding crescendo, the groundwork of menace he's laid comes back to reward us. The abbe may have created a nice atmosphere for the insane to pass their days (they paint, seem to have free reign of the place and even put on theatrical productions with the marquis' help), but they remain sick.
There is a flaw in "Quills," and that is a coda that feels unnecessary. Closing with the striking Pietá that immediately precedes it would have been just as satisfactory, perhaps more so. But with a movie this worthy, that's a fairly small complaint. Oscar season has truly arrived, and if the academy can handle its wicked darkness and tragedy, this movie has best picture nomination written all over it.
January 26: From Ananova Entertainment News:
Philip Kaufman's ravishing biopic of the Marquis de Sade is, like its attention-seeking subject, naughty but ever so nice, celebrating a literary genius whose salacious flights of fancy set aflame the loins of 19th century France.
The film sensibly restricts its focus to a few key years, specifically the early 1800s when the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) languished in an insane asylum at Charenton. There, the writer befriends resident priest Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who naively believes that writing is the perfect medium for the Marquis to purge his mind of perverted and unspeakable thoughts.
Unfortunately, these lusty chronicles of depravity and indecency tend to find their way into the publishing houses of Paris - smuggled out of the asylum by loyal chambermaid Madeleine (Kate Winslet) - and threaten to undermine the foundations of French society.
As the Marquis's fame grips the capital, esteemed Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) arrives at Charenton to revolutionize care of the patients. The sadistic medic staunchly rejects soft approaches to treatment, and believes rehabilitation can only be achieved through a rigorous regime of blood-letting, punishment and regular visits to his infamous water torture chair.
The Marquis relishes the prospect of a battle of wits with Royer-Collard, and publicly embarrasses his tormentor at a theatre evening organised by Coulmier and the staff. However, the doctor refuses to be distracted from his task, removing all of his most celebrated inmate's privileges, and unleashing his full wrath on the people who dare to abet his immoral crimes.
Adapted by Doug Wright from his own stage play, Quills is a rumbustious and bawdy account of one man's quest for artistic expression and freedom of speech. The screenplay takes great delight in mocking the hypocrisy of 19th century Parisian society, which would decry the Marquis in public, and devour his novels in private.
January 20: From the Observer:
"Last Quill and Testament,"
The Marquis de Sade, the subject of Philip Kaufman's film Quills, has been provoking, enraging and puzzling people for more than two centuries now. Libertine or libertarian? Liberator or oppressor? Dispenser of lies or revealer of truths? Even entering the language has not tamed him. His chief influence on the cinema had been through his admirer Luis Buñuel, whose films (even Robinson Crusoe) are steeped in de Sade's teachings. But there have been a succession of movies touching on de Sade these past 30-odd years. The Russian ambassador in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove is called DeSadesky. Peter Brook made a remarkable film of Peter Weiss's The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, a debate about revolution that had been the highlight of Brook's RSC Theatre of Cruelty Season in 1964.
In the 1969 American-German co-production De Sade, the marquis (a neurotic Keir Dullea) reviews his early life and the malign influence of his depraved uncle, the Abbé de Sade (John Huston), and in 1990 there was the surreal French comedy, Marquis, set in the Bastille on the eve of the French Revolution, with the actors wearing masks and de Sade conducting conversations with his penis. Most controversial of all Sadean films is Salo, Pasolini's transposition of The 120 Days of Sodom from pre-revolutionary France to the last days of Mussolini's Italy, which was banned from exhibition in Britain for 25 years but has now been granted an '18' certificate.
Adapted by Doug Wright from his own play, Quills is set in the early nineteenth century when de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), now in his late sixties, is imprisoned among the lunatics at Charenton, but is respected by its director, the Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) who encourages him to write plays for his fellow inmates. The story is, however, largely fictitious, a sort of fantasia in the life, work and ideas of de Sade, that alternates between the tragic and the farcical, the absurd and the almost sublime.
Kaufman's movies have always had an anti-authoritarian streak - he made his name with The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, a western celebrating the James-Younger gang, and he played off the maverick Chuck Yeager against the conformist astronauts in The Right Stuff and made the literary rebel Henry Miller the hero of Henry and June. One can see the appeal for him of the marquis.
Rush's de Sade is a run-down aristocrat, a subverter of order, reckless enemy of authority and propriety, a revolutionary who doesn't believe in progress. He's an old roué whose deeds now take place in the mind, less a sex maniac than a graphomaniac, compelled to write. He's first seen in a brilliant, brief prologue observing from a window what we take to be a woman being happily ravaged by a masked man. The camera draws back to reveal she's an aristocrat about to be guillotined, and as the sadistic crowd roars, Kaufman cuts from her blood dripping from the blade to de Sade writing with red ink, the word and deed inseparable.
A simple laundry girl, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), smuggles the marquis's erotic fictions from the asylum, handing them to an equestrian messenger from his publisher. Napoleon, affronted by the books and their erotic politics, is persuaded not to order his death but to send the vicious Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine in chillingly malevolent form) to Charenton to effect a cure.
As monstrous as the doctor brought in to attend to the king in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, Collard is venal, self-seeking and a natural sadist with a child bride right out of one of the marquis's novels. A battle of wits ensues. He's initially opposed by the bien-pensant Abbé Coulmier, but eventually the self-deluding representatives of State and Church join forces against the self-destructive de Sade. Through his very intransigence, the marquis wins at several levels, though he's physically destroyed in the process.
There's a splendid succession of scenes in which de Sade, deprived of quills and paper, manages to keep on writing. He first writes in wine on bed linen for Madeleine (a virgin who lives imaginatively through Sade's wild fictions) to transcribe. Then, deprived of sheets and wine, he dictates the book sentence by sentence to the madman in the next cell, who passes it down the row until Madeleine puts in on paper at the end of the line. 'They might even improve it,' de Sade says about these lunatics transmitting his work. Finally, left naked in a dungeon, he writes on the walls in his own excrement. Quills strikes occasional false notes. One is not always sure whether certain lines are simply banal or are ironic jokes about banality. But it's a daring film in the ideas it embraces and in the manner in which it dramatises them.
Shot on location at Sutton Hoo, in the streets of Oxford, and at the Old Naval College, Greenwich, with the jail scenes filmed at Pinewood Studios, it has been given an elegant, stylised look by its production designer Martin Childs (who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love) and the Dutch cinematographer Rogier Stoffers. There's also an impressive score by Stephen Warbeck.
January 20: Here's a nice, thoughtful review (with praise for Kate) from author Chris Jarmick:
Quills is one of the best films of the year. It's adapted by Doug Wright from his Obie Award winning play and directed by Philip (Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) Kaufman. It stars some of the best actors working in films today: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine.
It seems an odd time for a film which more or less romanticizes the last days of Marquis de Sade to be filmed and released-yet here it is. Although its release is on a smaller city by city schedule, you'll probably want to make a point of seeing it in the theater.
Words are powerful things. The pen is mightier than damn near anything and creates more fear and controversy than anything as well!!! The pornographic and satirical writings of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) are not only escaping from the Charenton Asylum for the Insane where the aristocratic Marquis enjoys a great deal of creature comforts courtesy of a benevolent Abbé Coumier (Joaquin Phoenix), but they are also being published and distributed throughout France, much to the embarrassment of Napoleon who at first wants de Sade shot but then reconsiders and dispatches the sadistic but morally superior Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine)to insure that de Sade's pornography is not seen by the public ever again. The Marquis' writings are leaving the asylum with the help of a laundress named Madeline (Kate Winslet) who's infatuated with de Sade's talent and in unrequited forbidden love with the Abbe'. Thus, the main cast of characters has been introduced, and the play can now begin.
There's a somewhat overly tidy twist ending which though clever, wraps up everything so neatly we're reminded this has been a stylish work of fiction. Pity we are not given an ending to match the opening of the film in which we seem to be witnessing a sado-masochistic moment from within the Marquis de Sade's imagination only to realize we are watching a public beheading of a young woman. There's a true feeling of being surprised and unsettled at the beginning of the film. Most will not leave the film unsettled or off-balanced however unless you want to really contemplate.
Geoffrey Rush has finally found his 'role of a lifetime'. At times perhaps you will see a bit of James Woods in Rush's performance. But Rush goes beyond what I suspect Woods would be capable of doing. He inhabits the immorality of his character like it was the skin he was born to stretch in. One forgets we are witnessing a bravura performance.
The more observant will witness a remarkable subtle performance from Joaquin Phoenix which does pay off in a fiery confrontation scene late in the film. It's not the kind of love it or laugh at it performance we got from him in Gladiator, but a much more textured and less affected performance.
Kate Winslet remains one of the most emotionally honest actresses of our time. I can't think of another actress working today who is able to seem so effortless and natural and resist the temptation to become overly theatrical when on screen, yet still portray distinctive and powerful characters like Winslet does. Her character wears a variety of masks, and the seemingly difficult task of playing someone like this in a natural, non-theatrical manner is handled perfectly by Winslet. She refuses to chew the scenery even when several opportunities beg for her to do just that. She's simply marvelous and has never been in a better film.
The film dazzles us in several ways. First is the approach that Kaufman takes. He is having his cake and eating it too, when he frames this vision of a Marquis de Sade as an 18th century martyr of freedom of thought and opinion. A man who's pornographic, satirical and sacrilegious writings so influenced the world, he had to be locked away in an insane asylum and persecuted for his 'art'. Kaufman and Wright don't shy too far away from de Sade's words, or from suggesting that his words are powerful, influential, hypnotic and dangerous. These are words that are capable of causing people to act on their animalistic urges and perhaps these are words that will create anarchy if not muted.
Yet Kaufman and Wright cannot really show us much of De Sade's work at all. It would not get past today's censors and it would not be met by an audience with anything short of disgust. Some of de Sade's writings are beyond gross and a mainstream audience would hardly be able to stomach some of the material. We do hear snippets of what most would consider the sacrilege of his work, and it's shocking to see him spit on the bible and dismiss it so sharply - but these things are just the tip of an iceberg that the audience is spared from hearing or seeing.
Instead we get a pretty simple morality tale. Rush's de Sade is so beyond anyone's idea of decency that he doesn't seem very much like a dangerous threat to society as much as a drag queen martyr for freedom of speech and thought. The character of Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is such a hypocrite, as an ultra conservative who uses his morality as an impenetrable shield, giving him carte blanche to cut with a sword without regard to how many he hurts in the process. He's a slimy villain minus only a few degrees of camp. We are given almost cliched scenes of melodrama and sequences that could have come from any number of over-written bodice ripper type novels (where caged women yearn to be freed). It's just here they are taken for a spin in a unique direction. They have been partially re-invented to fit into a more acceptable tall tale telling of the Marquis de Sade's last days. Even the most obvious and cliched of conceits, Dr Royer-Collard's teenaged wife Simone wanting to experiment sexually with a young contractor, after reading the Marquis de Sade, is acceptable because of the conviction of Amelia Warner's performance coupled with a need for something a bit familiar, and overdone to hang onto and feel vastly superior to.
There is some strong stuff in the film and it's not for squeamish or the prudish. It almost goes far enough at times, and it's certainly understandable why it holds itself it back from going any further.
No secret that repression and censorship and prohibition breeds acts and behaviors which rebel against the oppression. Here we have a film which tidily wraps the story of de Sade in 18th century clothing, but is quietly shouting messages to all who care to take notice of them. The repression the Marquis endured undoubtedly fueled his sordid tales, and the careful way the film represses itself may make audience members imagine more than what they've really seen.
I loved it. I enjoyed the deceptively tasty tone the script, actors and direction bring to the material which becomes a cousin to a Greek morality tale as re-thought by a modern Shakespeare, carefully presented for mass audience consumption.
Rather than be overly gross or pornographic the film gives us brilliantly conceived filmed scenes like when the Marquis ingeniously makes his clothing a parchment on which to write his latest story using his own blood as ink. Or even better when he whispers his stories from in-mate to in-mate until they are finally copied down by the devoted laundress Madeline to be smuggled to the mysterious man on a black horse who will whisk them away to the publisher.
At the end, the film starts to explode into a bloody Spanish Inquisition inspired finale you always wanted to see in one of those Hammer (or Poe inspired) Roger Corman films, where a larger budget would let them show you more debauchery and bloodshed. But it's then twisted into a too clever and too tidy of a finish.
The decadent look of the film must be credited to Rogier Stoffers' superbly crafted cinematography. He paints with light and film magically. There's also fine supporting work in the film by actors who portray other inmates suffering from various conditions of insanity. Although at times the in-mates are used as sort of comic relief, they remain quickly painted memorable portraits or characters, and not merely unimportant props.
There's great detail in the film which I savored with relish. The frames were used sumptuously by the director and his cinematographer. A few very memorable images will be replaying in my head for quite some time. I know the film will disappoint some of you for compromising itself, and it will shock and offend some of you because of its material. I also know it's one of the best films of the year.
Chris Jarmick, author of 'The Glass Cocoon' with Serena F. Holder - a steamy cyber-thriller - is available now.
January 19: From This is London:
Review by Neil Norman:
Take a cupful of The Marat/Sade, stir in a helping of The Devils and add a dash of (the as yet unmade) Confessions of a Pornographer and you might come up with something like Quills, Philip Kaufman's screen version of Doug Wright's award-winning play about the Marquis de Sade's final days closeted within the Charenton asylum.
In other words, we do not turn to this film for trustworthy biographical content; nor do we take it to task for historical inaccuracy. To do either would be missing the point: this is a schematic enterprise, one that uses historical figures to make a point or two about artistic license, freedom of speech, human rights, establishment hypocrisy and, uh, the joy of sex (however "abnormal").
For all its absurdities, Quills conjures an arch theatricality that is somehow irresistible. From the moment Geoffrey Rush appears as the marquis, dressed to thrill in skin-tight satin and lace with a rakishly dreadlocked wig, the film's intent is clear. This is entertainment, though not as we've seen it in some while - and certainly not from a Hollywood studio such as Twentieth Century Fox.
The plot is a mere skeleton upon which to hang the louche dressing. The marquis is secretly smuggling manuscripts out of his cell via a sympathetic washerwoman (Kate Winslet) who delivers them to a publisher. Before long, they're being sold on the streets of Paris, much to the chagrin of the emperor Napoleon who demands that the books be burned.
When word filters back to the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the libertarian priest who runs Charenton with an enlightened touch, of this betrayal of trust he is forced to remove writing privileges from the marquis. Quills and paper are taken away. Worse is to follow; Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), having just acquired a teenage bride from the convent and whose methods of curing madness are close to the tortures of the Inquisition, is sent to oversee and sharpen up the asylum's practices. Any more lapses will result in severe penalties. Needless to say, the marquis refuses to play ball, finding ever more inventive ways of disseminating his work - from writing in wine on his bed linen to penning a book in his own blood on his clothes, to finally covering the walls of his cell in words written in his own excrement. There's no keeping an irrepressible writer and compulsive pervert down.
At times the acting veers towards the high camp and the script seems designed to play to the gallery - much like the marquis's little plays performed by the inmates for the entertainment of the public - but there are some wonderful details and exchanges. "Don't flatter yourself, marquis," spits the exasperated Coulmier after one religious argument with his recalcitrant charge. "You're not the Antichrist; you're nothing but a malcontent who knows how to spell." I liked also his encouraging remarks to the shaven-headed pyromaniac in painting class: "Bravo. It's far better to paint fires than to set them, isn't it?" A remark that bears fruit in the film's incendiary climax.
The situation goes from bad to worse as the marquis's persistence renders him vulnerable to Royer-Collard's infernal contraptions and it all climaxes in the nutters running amok. Innocents die, situations are reversed and irony hangs heavy in the air like a pall of smoke.
While undoubtedly an improvement on the 1969 movie De Sade (with Keir Dullea living up to his name as a duller De Sade than most), it is not a patch on Henri Xhonneux's extraordinary movie, Marquis, in which all the actors were dressed as animals and the marquis conversed with his own highly opinionated penis.
We may have to wait for Daniel Auteuil's forthcoming De Sade movie for a more definitive, credible version. Meanwhile, this provides a raucous, arch and not entirely subtle evening of perverse delights.
January 19: From Popcorn News:
Review by Neil Smith:
Necrophilia, mutilation and an unhealthy interest in faeces - no, not the Conservative Party's election manifesto but a few of the things the Marquis de Sade wrote about during the 27 years he spent under lock and key. Best known on these shores for inspiring the word 'sadism', Sade has long divided people: some regard him as an overlooked literary genius; others dismiss him as a vile and amoral pornographer.
That debate is set to continue with the release of two new films about the notorious Frenchman. In 'Sade', Daniel Auteuil portrays him as a silky smooth seducer. 'Quills', however, presents a more flamboyant interpretation and gives Geoffrey Rush his best role since 'Shine'.
Set in Charenton Asylum, the madhouse where Sade died in 1814, Philip Kaufman's audacious drama begins by showing how the imprisoned Marquis (Rush) contrives to have his fruity fiction published. He does this with the assistance of Madeleine (Kate Winslet), an earthy young laundress who acts as his link to the outside world.
A sympathetic priest, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), tries to bring about Sade's spiritual reformation, but to no avail. So Napoleon sends in Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a doctor whose harsh methods make the Spanish Inquisition seem polite.
Inventively merging fact and fiction, writer Doug Wright not only offers an insight into Sade's complex and contradictory personality but also makes some pertinent observations about the ongoing battle between free speech and the forces of censorship.
The script is based on Wright's own play and 'Quills' is strikingly theatrical - with its almost operatic tone likely to make it an acquired taste - but if you're interested in Sade, this is essential viewing. If not, there's still joy to be found in this provocative, irreverent and blackly comic romp.
The Popcorn rating is 4 of 5 stars; Readers' rating is 5 of 5 stars.
January 19: From the February issue of Empire Magazine:
Review by Ian Nathan:
A fountain of scandalous, explicit prose, the Marquis De Sade was the living embodiment of the term "colourful character", if not outright perv. Flamboyant, decadent and depraved, he is flush with cinematic possibility, and Philip Kaufman's dark rendition of his final days shuttered away in a French asylum readily gets to grips with the old goat.
Played with remarkable subtlety (when there was ample opportunity to grandstand horribly) by Geoffrey Rush, this is film worth seeing merely for his performance. But beyond a fabulous piece of characterisation, an uneven script sadly resorts to a barrage of moral fervour, gauche sauciness and Gothic horror.
Based on a renowned stage play, events are structured around the fragmenting relationship between the asylum head, priest Coulmier (a noticeably awkward Phoenix) and De Sade, as the former tries to contain the writer's insatiable urge to express himself. Restricted from using writing implements (hence the title), De Sade resorts to increasingly hideous methods of communication, from wine, to his own blood, to excrement.
Winslet, with typical sparkle, is the washergirl and object of lust for both priest (in denial) and writer (screaming it from the rooftops). Caine, with typical Caineness, is the doctor who arrives to torture the depravity out of De Sade and become the ultimate catalyst for complete mayhem and tragedy.
A complex, often funny and vividly-told tale, Quills ultimately cannot make up its mind what it wants to tell us. So loud is it shrieking at times that it makes absolutely no sense at all. It celebrates the need for freedom of expression, then backtracks into a cautionary tale, bewailing the madness of it all. While always lovely to look at, it comes off bewilderingly off-kilter. De Sade would probably have loved it.
3 of 5 stars
January 19: From the UK Telegraph:
"The Marquis de Sade Fails to Grip" -- Fine performances from Kate Winslet and Michael Caine cannot salvage an unconvincing portrait of the rapist, torturer and novelist, says Andrew O'Hagan
Unless you possess a very un-Laura Ashley-like view of niceness, I can't promise you anything very nice this week. Our subject is the Marquis de Sade, the novelist, rapist, coprophiliac, torturer, abomination, and all-round genius of the asylum at Charenton. Quills, Philip Kaufman's new film, goes some distance in trying to making the dirty French toff a civil-liberties martyr, a hero of the French Revolution, and an interesting man. And those of you who disagree will be bent over and whipped until you see the light.
We first see de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) looking through prison bars in the closing days of the Revolution. I don't know if he asked the landlady specially, but he has a good view of the guillotine, where the assembled cake-eaters lop off the heads of Marie Antoinette and Co. De Sade is moved to Charenton, where he keeps a nice apartment filled with books, pictures and some rather nice wine glasses.
He strikes up a friendship with the laundry girl, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who carries his writings out into the world. The writings, needless to say, fail in several important respects to resemble the works of AA Milne, but they are read voraciously by people on street corners. Napoleon was outraged by these tales of innocent young girls subjected to a debased eroticism, and ordered that they be burned.
Striding among the bewildered of Charenton we find a good-looking priest, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who is quite enlightened, if that's that word, in respect of the Marquis's way of going on. As a Christian he will not sanction the writings, but as a confused young man, and fellow fancier of Madeleine, he is a bit perturbed by de Sade's single-mindedness. Things become difficult for all of them with the arrival of a conservative, Naploeon-inclined doctor called Antoine Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), who takes away de Sade's pens and ink. Now the trouble really begins.
Rush first came to our attention playing the disturbingly sweet pianist in Shine, but ever since then he has been playing ogres in cloaks, the kind of manipulative men who stab people with their eyes. As the Marquis he is floridly obscene - filthy of mind and body, corrupt to the surface of his skin - but he never convinces you that he is a deep thinker. He's more like a schoolboy peeing on the floor of the classroom. Rush behaves like an actor behaving like a genius, and all the way through Quills you find it hard to believe that his novels are the product of anything besides our hero's determination to annoy his captors. This not only makes the character a bit dramatically thin, but it makes mince of the subject's ideas, and renders the question of de Sade's literary value, well, impotent.
With his writing implements confiscated, de Sade begins to write on the bed linen in red wine, graduating to writing in blood on his breeches, and finally, in a grand turn for the worst, writing his dainty lines on the walls in excrement. Due to the slight Carry On element in manner and speech, though, and the Blackadder view of history, we never come to feel the force of any of this, never come close to comprehending the nature of de Sade's originality, nor, indeed, his enduring influence over modern writers, kinky lovers, and unspeakable murderers to this day.
De Sade's influence has gone from the philosophically challenging to the baleful; you get no sense of why from this film. What you get is Madeleine's mother (Billy Whitelaw) wishing to contemplate the text despite her blindness. "Well," she says to her daughter, "if you won't read it to your own mother!" "It's not your cup of tea, mother," says Madeleine.
But, over all, Winslet is much better. She has the subtlety and the complicatedness to be able to suggest an innocent girl's love of the forbidden, and she gives her lines all she's got. Phoenix, who made such a good Commodus in Gladiator, is simply lost here, too impervious to his own charms to be believable, and roiling with uncertainty in the part. There is one very good scene involving a play that de Sade has written, to be performed in front of Royer-Collard, the new doctor. The play basically satirises the doctor's recent marriage to a very young girl. Caine's face, as he watches, is Claudius-like, and he does a not-bad impersonation of someone feeling quietly humiliated.
The problem is really Kaufman's. He has previously shown an interest in the points where politics and sexual obsession meet (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and in the relationship between writing and sex (Henry and June), but in telling the story of the Marquis de Sade he falls into caricature and is overwhelmed by the surface mystery of the character. The film does the one thing that films about writers should probably never do: it makes you not want to read the writing, even more than you didn't want to before.
January 19: From the UK Independent:
Review by Anthony Quinn:
Film: The Big Picture: "Nobleman behaving badly"
Last week we saw castaway Tom Hanks, in a fit of Blue Peter-style improvisation, create fishing nets from the gauze of a dress, and bandages from bubble-wrap. This week's big movie, Quills, also celebrates a captive man's inventiveness, but here it's for the sake of self-expression rather than self-preservation, and the light-fingered hero is not FedEx troubleshooter Chuck Noland but - vive la difference! - literary pervert and troublemaker the Marquis de Sade.
Philip Kaufman and his screenwriter Doug Wright have imagined the Marquis as a patron saint (or sinner) of artistic freedom, now aging and imprisoned in a lunatic asylum yet nevertheless driven to scribble his salacious tales of the unexpected. It's not a bad life, really: the Marquis (played with gimlet-eyed suavity by Geoffrey Rush) has a pleasantly furnished cell with a four-poster bed, bookcases and all the writing materials he needs. This luxury is sanctioned by his amicable gaoler, the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who initially regards the Marquis's outpourings as a harmless kind of therapy. But unbeknown to the Abbe, his infamous prisoner has another friend, an obliging laundress named Madeleine (Kate Winslet) who smuggles out his manuscripts for publication, to the delight of the reading public and the outrage of Napoleon. At the latter's behest one Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is dispatched to the asylum with instructions to staunch the flow from de Sade's pen.
The doctor brings his own methods to bear on the problem patient. Not for him the Abbe's mollycoddling; his idea of purging involves strapping the inmate to a chair and ducking him, witchfinder-style, in a vat of freezing water. This medieval sort of cruelty, combined with the doctor's taste for nubile flesh (he marries a convent-educated 17-year-old), is the film's prompt to us to wonder just who's the real sadist round here. Not the Marquis, for sure, who turns out be a lovable lord of misrule, and impishly resourceful once the Abbe begins exercising prohibitive measures.
After his paper and quills are confiscated, the Marquis simply turns his supper to advantage, tearing open a roast chicken to find the wishbone - his nib - while the accompanying claret does duty as his ink. For paper, why, there's the crisp white acreage of his bed linen. When this scheme is rumbled, he dips the shard of a broken mirror in his own blood and begins inscribing prose on the clothes he stands up in, wearing his art on his sleeve. Stripped naked and thrown in a bare cell, his final recourse is - well, you don't want to know what he does to the prison walls.
While this escalating frenzy of resourcefulness has its moments of fun, there is a draggy self-importance about Quills which made me groan. Its combination of literariness and eroticism, far from thrilling the blood, feels too calculating and agenda-driven. Kaufman has been through this territory before in Henry and June, a study of porn litterateur Henry Miller so stodgy and unenticing it might as well have been called Terry and June.
The script, adapted from Doug Wright's play, is at once over-explicit and vague; in one of his rants against censorship the Marquis yells, "In conditions of adversity the artist flourishes", a line that looks fine on the page but withers and dies on the lips. And what exactly is being defended here? While the film justifies its subject on a moral basis, it makes no claims on an aesthetic one. Not having read de Sade, I can't say whether his stuff was any good or not, but surely Kaufman and Wright should have made a case for his talent as a writer and not just as a lewd contrarian and exhibitionist.
On the plus side, the look of the movie is expertly composed by production designer Martin Childs, and director of photography Rogier Stoffers has tinted the picture with a greenish, putrescent glow; corruption seems to be eating away at the edges. Both Rush and Winslet are disarming, and raise their performances above the unseemly carnival going on around them. Yet they're still marooned in a film that makes strident demands for freedom of expression without ever convincing us that it has anything worth expressing.
January 19: From the UK Guardian:
Lust among the laundry: Peter Bradshaw on Geoffrey Rush's showstopping turn as the Marquis de Sade
'You write more than you read the sure sign of the amateur!' Thus the Abbe Coulmier, the progressive young priest of the Charenton hospital, addresses his most famous inmate, patient and congregant: the grinningly unrepentant Marquis de Sade, surrounded by his filthy books, lewd manuscripts and cheesy phallic curios.
It is a rare moment of literary shrewdness in this movie. Pasolini might have extrapolated from Sade a dark conflation of political tyranny and sexual cruelty, and Peter Brook saw in his final incarceration a refinement of the theatre of the absurd. But in Quills, adapted by Doug Wright from his stage play, director Philip Kaufman treats the great man both more leniently and less seriously.
He finds in the final years a bizarre yet oddly sentimental farce, taking as its springboard Sade's reputed tendresse for a 17-year-old girl working in the asylum laundry. It is the kind of romp that Stoppard might have cooked up; it's the kind of romp that Peter Schaffer did cook up in Amadeus and like Amadeus, Quills has that sine qua non of the period madhouse scene: the mad naked fat old gibbering woman with enormous breasts. There's a hint of Dangerous Liaisons in the belle-lettristic adulteries and an unfortunate touch of Carry On Don't Lose Your Head in the historical set-dressing.
Kate Winslet is the hearty young laundress who lustily smuggles the Marquis's incendiary manuscripts out of prison for publication, allowing the author a chaste kiss but slapping his face when the old brute tries anything else. She is notably uncorrupted by reading Sade's stuff, though, sharing a bed only with her blind old mum (Billie Whitelaw). Joaquin Phoenix is the caring yet troubled Abbe, and a very absurd performance it is too, with an English accent that he has evidently imported from Harrods, claiming VAT back at the airport. 'Hler,' he says, instead of 'Hello' adding things like 'We must guard against our own cwuption!'
But Quills is partly redeemed by the two heavyweights in the cast. Michael Caine is excellent as the humourless and sadistic doctor who torments Sade. And Geoffrey Rush gives a showstopping turn as the old devil himself: a hilarious display of hauteur, mordant wit and lizardly, lip-licking cunning. It's worth seeing for Rush's louche performance, but he is imprisoned in a rather shallow comedy: all periwig and no bite.
January 18: From the UK Times:
"Film of the Week" - Review by Amber Cowan:
The idea of Hollywood tackling a warts-and-all biopic of de Sade, the original sadist, is a concept so gleefully perverse that it could have been dreamed up by the Marquis himself. After all, it is difficult to imagine a more bitter rival to Tinseltown's rose-tinted dream factory than a fallen aristocrat with an appetite for coprophilia, necrophilia and a host of other sexual peccadillos.
European flicks such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's 120 Days of Sodom and Benoît Jacquot's Sade have both made partisan stabs at dissecting a man described in equal measures as brilliant and a beast. However, in Quills, Kaufman eschews a stern retelling of the de Sade myth in favour of a rollicking, richly inventive romp set around a fictionalised few weeks in the Marquis's life.
After his Oscar-winning performance as the disturbed pianist David Helfgott in Shine (1996), Rush (above) is resplendent as the Marquis, flaunting his sexuality with spiky false nails and a luxuriant grey wig. Winslet is Madeleine, the fresh-faced object of the Marquis's desires, who believes his blue stories are purple prose and smuggles out reams of parchment to his publisher in Paris.
Michael Caine, meanwhile, is Dr Royer-Collard, a mental health physician who advocates taming the insane with tortuous cold water treatments and body-cages. Charged by Napoleon to 'cure' the Marquis and stem his flow of obscene material, he descends on Charenton Asylum with his teenage bride Simone (Amelia Warner) and locks horns with Abbé Coulmier (Phoenix), the progressive young priest who cares for de Sade.
After Henry & June and his reworking of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kaufman has a reputation for scholarly literary adaptations, yet here de Sade's bawdy jokes, leering obsequiousness and penchant for blowing raspberries make for a fertile source of childish humour and belly-laughs. Rush is superbly manic as the Marquis, while Phoenix's tight-lipped Abbé is a seething mass of repressed sexual ambiguity.
The implicit reflections on the nature of evil become increasingly explicit as the film nears its denouement, but the final scenes still contain enough blood and guts to satisfy hungry schlock horror fans.
With quills, cheap thrills and lashings of filth, this film comes very close to capturing the spirit of de Sade.
January 18: From the UK Times:
Review by Adam Mars-Jones (very negative):
Philip Kaufman made one of the great American films of an undistinguished era, The Right Stuff, in 1983, and it's impossible to see his name attached to a film without hoping that he might again bring off something as unlikely as a combination of shrewd irony and belief in the heroic as a possibility. Unfortunately with Quills he doesn't turn Doug Wright's script into anything but a botch, crude in its ironies and its debates.
The Marquis de Sade has gone down in history as a man who resisted no gratifying impulse, although there aren't many men who had the chance to send a hated mother-in-law to the guillotine, and refused to take it. In Quills he's confined to Charenton asylum, an inmate with privileges who jeopardises them by continuing to write pornography, which he smuggles out by way of a sympathetic laundrymaid.
As played by Geoffrey Rush the Marquis is a tremendous ham who runs rhetorical rings round his captors. The Abbé in charge is played by Joaquin Phoenix as a pious innocent prone to bouts of epigram ("You're not the Anti-Christ, you are nothing but a malcontent who knows how to spell!"). Meanwhile, Napoleon has sent Michael Caine (as Dr. Royer-Collard) to put a stop to the filth factory.
Since the moralistic Doctor promptly picks up from a convent an underaged bride whom he apparently ordered some time earlier, and subjects her to a regime of platitudes and marital rape, the Marquis doesn't even have to open his mouth for us to realise that his philosophy is more than a fantasy.
Neither screenwriter nor director can decide whether this is a horror film or a black comedy. Some laughs, clearly, are intended, but there are others: Rush, for instance, stripping as ordered by the Abbé, and taunting him for his prudishness, while all the while trying to withhold his bits from the camera's gaze.
Kate Winslet is badly cast as the laundrymaid - she's almost preposterously wholesome. When she says "Oh, you!" to de Sade it's like Daphne chiding Frasier on TV. Either that or panto: when her blind mother - Billie Whitelaw, of all people - asks to be read something from the book she's got (it's Justine or some such catalogue of depravity), she croons sweetly: "It's not your cuppa tea, Mother."
January 15: From BBC Movies:
Review by George Perry (3 out of 5 stars)
Doug Wright's interesting interpretation of the last years of the life of the Marquis de Sade does not pass historical scrutiny. The manner of his death is entirely wrong, the publication of his celebrated work "Justine"is misplaced by a decade or two and the account of De Sade's incarceration in the asylum of Charenton is almost entirely fictitious. All this is excusable dramatic licence.
What in Philip Kaufman's film is not, however, is the miscasting of the usually excellent Geoffrey Rush, magnificent when he played the bumbling, mentally ill musician in "Shine", but here unable to convey the libidinous depths of the depraved Marquis. Initially he is seen in privileged confinement in a luxurious book-lined cell furnished with escritoire and masquerading as clinical treatment. He robs the Marquis of the very means of writing, forcing him to use blood and excrement as ink.
Michael Caine conveys authority in a thanklessly unsympathetic role, but Joaquin Phoenix is colourless as the well-meaning young priest who is nominally in charge of the establishment. Kate Winslet, however, is surprisingly effective, bringing force to an ingenue part.
The prologue and epilogue, designed to open up a stage piece, are unnecessary, and the Oxfordshire locations hardly convey Gallic authenticity to European eyes.
January 14: From Scotland on Sunday:
"Film of the week: 'Quills'," By Richard Jobson
There are currently three versions of films about French novelist Marquis de Sade either in pre-production, filming or about to hit the screen. Abel Ferrara, director of King of New York, will undoubtedly whip de Sade black and blue with his attempt and French director Benoit Jacquot will hopefully unlock something new in Sade. So, how has this sexually permissive author been brought to the screen in Hollywood's lavish version, Quills?
Instead of the usual cradle to the grave story, we begin with the writer, played by Geoffrey Rush, in his final years in a sanatorium. His books are banned but he continues to write them from his prison cell and does big business in underground publishing, bringing stories of eroticism, masochism and perversion to an audience only too willing to lap it up. He was a kind of 18th-century Larry Flynt, a liberator of pornography and antidote to sexual and political hypocrisy.
The story here concerns the conservative Catholic French authorities' attempt to silence his explicit poetry and maintain a clear line between the permissible and the profane. The sanatorium is led by a progressive monk, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who understands that an inclusive system of creativity and well-being might be more worthwhile than the manacles and torture chambers of his new boss, played by Michael Caine.
In between the layers of deception and idealism lies the innocent and hopeful maid, Kate Winslet, who is the secret conduit of the Marquis' highly charged pages to the public. The battle between a liberal and caring sensibility and a tough, righteous and quick-fix mentality is pertinent to the present, and the film-makers have tried hard to make this period drama as politically relevant and engaging as possible beyond the obvious sauciness and double entendres of the characters and material.
The story depicts de Sade as a genius confined to an empty life without his precious quills to write and create his stories. The thin message that nothing can stop the force of creativity is never disguised, and de Sade as both champion of the people and liberator of our sexual desires would be a laughable idea if the film-makers had not made their minds up that he were of such literary and human importance.
The film has a robust energy and the scenes are rattled out at a bristling pace, which certainly makes the time fly by but demotes the supposed seriousness of the central character into being near histrionically wild, camp and vaudevillian.
The acting of Rush is to be admired, but here he is out of control and at times is looking for laughs when he should have been searching for the pathos and madness of a man imprisoned for nothing more than having a vibrant imagination.
Strangely enough, what the film needs most is sanity and it doesn't come in the shape of another clumsy and lazy performance from Michael Caine; however, it does appear whenever Kate Winslet is on screen. I have never quite understood what all the fuss was about with this actress but I'm getting there - she is good here, if not very good.
Her role is soft and obvious but she makes the most of it. She never over-plays any of her scenes and she leaves enough room to grow and evolve, something her male co-stars don't manage. It is her role that is the ears and eyes of the audience and her modernity and lack of fussiness make this a better film.
The director Philip Kaufman has art-house pretensions and obviously loves subversive literary characters, as was evident in his biopic of the relationship between Henry Miller and Anaús Nin, the limp Henry and June. He also loves a bit of flesh, a flash of bosom, the sensuality of a sexual encounter as well as the extended foreplay that builds to the final eruption. If this all reads like the review to a soft core Seventies' porno flick then that is where Kaufman belongs. Dressing up films as high art which are little more than Carry On porno will not dupe audiences in this country, who I think know the difference.
A film about de Sade needed to be tougher, more perverse and shocking. This is not even a half-way house. In an attempt to find a big audience the film has been compromised in every way, leaving it lost in the no-man's land of looking classy but sounding cheap. Apart from Winslet, no-one comes out of this film with much credibility and if this was an insight into the dark subconscious of the great fetishist and pervert then he seemed little more than a reasonable and quite suburban naughty French teacher who you might bring home to meet the parents.
Quills (18) is on general release from Friday.
January 11: From U-Wire:
"Rush To See 'Quills'," by Zak Salih, The Breeze, James Madison U.
Harrisonburg,Va. -- We've all been told heroes come in many shapes and sizes: the silent, solid Herculean type; the timid, frail character whose weapon is intellect; the aged warrior who returns from retirement to win the day once again. But since when have we seen a character as twisted, sadistic and complex as the hero of "Quills," the royal highness of sadomasochism, the Einstein of sexuality: the Marquis de Sade? And what a lovely, wild performance Geoffrey Rush gives as the writer waging a bitter battle against the society that would shun and silence his eccentric writings of the flesh.
Though the film is set among the company of lunatics in the asylum of Chatterton, France, one can't help but wonder if the Marquis is perhaps the sanest one of all and that those who wish to silence his expressions should be committed instead. Ultimately, this is what director Philip Kaufman's ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being") picture depicts: the Armageddon between freedom and suppression, creative expression and censorship.
When the film opens the Marquis de Sade is imprisoned in a luxurious cell where he spends his days penning works of erotic spectacle that are collected and transported to a publisher via his chambermaid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet). These works are subsequently released to a public caught in the emotional fervor of revolutionary France until they garner the attention of Napoleon. Shocked by such unabashed literature, the Emperor sends an alienist (Michael Caine in a delicious turn as the villain) to "cure" de Sade.
Thus, we have our two opponents: literature and censorship, with the film compromising the battle between the two in both the mental and physical arenas.
The genius of "Quills" is that, like its hero (or anti-hero, if you prefer), the story slowly descends into darkness and despair. The first half is a feisty mix of dark comedy and provocative eroticism as characters begin to fall under the Marquis' seductive spell. It is only after the alienist, Royer-Collard, takes control of de Sade's "rehabilitation" and administers everything from confiscation of his writing materials to amputation that the destruction of both body and mind occurs.
Though the conclusion leaves one wondering whether the Marquis gave in or outlandishly opposed moral order once more, the situation comes around full circle. Screenwriter Doug Wright, who based the film on his play of the same name, provides wonderful dialogue for Rush's Marquis, some of which is so dirty yet comical that it reminds one of Tom Cruise's character from "Magnolia." Despite supporting stars Winslet, Caine and Joaquin Phoenix (as the priest who runs the asylum), this is Rush's film, from the opening voice over to the final moments of despair.
So is it worth it to see this wonderful juxtaposition of humor and horror, pleasure and pain, virtue and vice?
To quote the Marquis: "Feindishly so!"
January 8: From About Film:
Review by Alison Tweedie-Perry (Grade A-):
Often in films with historical subjects, details and facts are needlessly changed to serve some Hollywood notion of salability, when the true story would serve just as well. Fabrications and alterations to known historical events can be jarring, wresting the viewer from the narrative's spell. Most moviegoers, however, are more lovers of tales well told than strict fact fetishists-that is, after all, why they go to the cinema, one of the most engrossing storytelling media yet devised.
Such prejudice for historical accuracy can easily lead to mistrust of Quills, a film about the Marquis de Sade. Viewers who have read any of Sade's works and know something of his biography may fear that they will be unable to ignore the film's great lapses in historical verisimilitude (why, not even the words uttered by the celluloid madman were from the actual Marquis' quill, but the screenwriter's brain!). Fortunately, what has always been of greatest interest about Sade is not his words (which are, as condemned by a character in the movie, repetitive and poorly wrought), but the ideas those words engender. As for those issues of historical accuracy, from the first gripping scene, which cleverly manipulates the audience's assumptions, they cease to matter. Quills unspools its absorbing story, enticing the audience with humor and titillation until it ensnares it with horror and pathos, then sends it home to ponder the ramifications.
Adapted by Doug Wright from his play, Quills supposes to find the infamous Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) imprisoned in Charenton insane asylum under the care of the idealistic Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who sees no harm in allowing Sade to exorcise his lascivious demons on paper. Unbeknownst to the abbé, a ripe young chambermaid named Madeleine (Kate Winslet) smuggles Sade's words out in her laundry basket to a waiting publisher's assistant and a ravenous public. The purloined letters cause such a stir that the Emperor Napoleon soon hears of the outrageous stories. He orders them burned and the Marquis executed. In an attempt to avoid adding to the long line of recent populist martyrs, the emperor is persuaded to allow noted alienist Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to "reform" the errant nobleman by means more suited to the Spanish Inquisition than the healing profession.
Incensed when he learns the Marquis has been abusing his freedoms by publishing his writings, Abbé Coulmier implores him to rein in his creative urges before the doctor clamps down on them all. Of course, Sade cannot be so easily deterred and grows more offensive, taunting Dr. Royer-Collard by parading the doctor's own perversities (borne on the gossiping lips of servants to the Marquis' ears) with a squirmingly hilarious play before the asylum and assorted visitors. Fighting to maintain his control over the asylum, the abbé grows ever more strict, depriving Sade of quills, ink, paper, and all the substitutes for them that the writer fashions from his meals, clothes, and person.
As the efforts to silence the Marquis tighten, the minds of those who read his stories expand; some are freed, many more are scandalized. The mirror Sade professes to hold up to the world with his words reflects more than the characters-from high-spirited Madeleine to Dr. Royer-Collard's erstwhile virginal wife to the tormented Coulmier (who, Sade sees all too clearly, loves Madeleine with an ardor beyond God's grace) - can easily accept.
Here is where the magic of storytelling trumps all adhesion to historical fact. Only the merest particulars of this film actually happened, but that doesn't prevent the story from ringing true. Quills captures what is perhaps Sade's only genius: the ability not merely to touch a nerve, but to yank on it and give it a searing twist. Such affronts to hypocrisy and pious outrage, and appeals to deep perversion and thirst for artistic freedom caused all manner of real consequences-from the Marquis' own almost-lifelong imprisonment to the rise of the sexual cult that bears his name to the creation of incendiary art that lives today with the likes of Marilyn Manson and Madonna. The film deftly plucks all these chords and, while it has a clear preference for the preservation of creative expression, never resorts to bloodless dogma. On the contrary, it provides quite a bit of blood, along with every other bit of fluid and ordure the human animal produces, expelled for every reason the human animal can devise: passion, pain, joy, fear, mirth, hatred, and even love.
Whether genuinely mad, wickedly inspired, or-more likely-some combination of the two, the Marquis, as zestfully portrayed by Rush, presents the mind of the story. His ideas and the lengths to which he goes to express them are captivating and inflammatory. Winslet's voluptuous Madeleine, chaste but far from naïve, gives the film its heart. Her indispensable goodwill toward the Marquis and her love of the abbé leave them all open to destruction. Though it seems trite to say so, Phoenix's tender holy man provides the soul of the tale. In his mission to shepherd the tormented spirits in his care, his presence counsels tolerance regardless of understanding.
The performances are uniformly outstanding. Geoffrey Rush is broad but believable. He is, after all, portraying a real person as naked symbol and mewling id. It's a tall order he more than handily fills. Kate Winslet brings her oft-mentioned luminosity, as well as her undervalued wit and warmth, to her supporting but pivotal role. The surprise is Joaquin Phoenix. Proving that his layered performance as the petulant, scheming Emperor Commodus in Gladiator was no fluke (and that English accents improve with practice), Phoenix spreads his wings and displays an impressive range. Gentle and idealistic, trusting but not simple, he imbues the abbé with a grace that would be difficult for many more celebrated actors to pull off. Michael Caine assays the doctor with a natural demeanor and brisk, businesslike air that prevent the role from being merely a cartoon villain.
No story so well fleshed-out as this one could possibly fall victim to the arid mustiness that some expect of historical dramas. Further, director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff) fully realizes this film, saving it from the stilted talky-ness that plagues so many stage plays adapted to the screen. There's a giddy naughtiness to the first act that seems to twist and morph into the morbid debauchery of the last, leaving open the question of where the responsibility for the outcome lies. The very end is perhaps too patently ironic and predictable, but only because what has gone before is so thrilling.
It is possible that a more factual rendering of the Marquis de Sade's life could be made into an engaging film. There is enough drama inherent in the details of his existence to fashion a watchable, if rote, history. The greater art, however, lies in probing Sade's larger meaning and impact without leeching the subject of its color and allure. Quills masterfully makes this artistic reach beyond the facts and grasps the truth.
January 8: From the Knoxville News-Sentinel:
Review by Betsy Pickle (4 stars out of 5):
An age of enlightenment comes to a bad end in "Quills." A film set during the later years in the life of the infamous Marquis de Sade, "Quills" reflects modern society as well as its period setting. It addresses questions of censorship, oppression, sexuality, creativity, religion, morality and hypocrisy. Oh yes, and it's quite a delicious ride.
Geoffrey Rush ("Shine") gives an exceptional performance as the French writer, who from the late 18th century into the early 19th century scandalized and delighted readers with explicit novels born of his sexual obsession. To this day, de Sade's writings are considered disturbing, though he is best known to the person on the street as the inspiration for the term sadism.
Doug Wright's script, based on his stage play, catches up with the marquis during his time at Charenton Asylum, one of the many French medical or penal institutions in which de Sade spent more than a third of his life. Not overtly mentally ill like his fellow inmates, de Sade is considered sick in his soul.
Fortunately, de Sade has a compassionate priest, Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), looking out for him. Coulmier, who runs Charenton, believes that his wards can be rehabilitated or at least helped. For some, it's through the structure and release of singing. For the marquis, it's through writing. Coulmier encourages him to vent his demons on paper instead of keeping them inside or unleashing them on the fractured humans around him. The marquis has a good supply of quill pens and paper in his cell, which is furnished comfortably with his own belongings. De Sade's wife faithfully pays a fee to the asylum for her husband's privileges. What Coulmier doesn't know is that the marquis' writings are being spirited out of the asylum by a laundress, Madeleine (Kate Winslet). They are snapped up as quickly as they are published, and then they are just as promptly banned, collected and burned. Not surprisingly, de Sade has lascivious yearnings for the virgin Madeleine, but she has eyes only for the young priest. De Sade toys with Coulmier until his celibacy is tested.
The marquis' contraband publications become such an embarrassment that a tougher authority figure is sent in to silence Coulmier's star patient. Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) takes a different, more medieval approach to curing mental illness. De Sade's infractions are countered with harsher and harsher punishments.
Although the film doesn't put freedom of speech at the top of its soapbox, there's no mistaking its criticism of de Sade's censors. More important than his rights is his need to express his thoughts, to convey ideas -- not to make Coulmier happy but to give voice to the fountain of stories inside. Coulmier's encouragement of writing as therapy may be a little ahead of its time, but his Christianity-based practice of tolerance and brotherly love is timeless. Wright and director Philip Kaufman don't seem to have much faith in righteousness winning out over evil, however.
The ultimate warning in "Quills" has to do with crime vs. illness. It's a lesson that perhaps could be applied right now to the Robert Downey Jr. case -- prison does not cure addiction just as torture does not heal a sick mind. "Quills" makes it seem that Royer-Collard was more of a sadist than de Sade ever was.
Sex in "Quills" is presented primarily as an element of power or control. This is not an erotic drama along the lines of Kaufman's "Henry & June" or "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." That said, there are scenes of intense sexual longing that are portrayed exquisitely by the cast. Oscar winner Rush is fearless as the marquis, but he isn't the only one who gives a bravura performance. Winslet, Phoenix and Caine are all outstanding.
Imaginative and skillfully executed, "Quills" makes its points, and then some.
January 8: From the Sun News:
"'Quills' is Best Among Somewhat Bloody Holiday Mess," by John Urbancich, Executive Editor
As year-end best lists start appearing in various parts of the country, don't be surprised if "Quills" earns high marks on many of them. Still, it would be as blasphemous as director Philip Kaufman's sure-to-be-provocative film to suggest that anyone rush out to see it on Christmas Day, when "Quills" opens at one theater here. In truth, there are more soothing and family-driven duties to perform than watching a fictionalized account of the last days of the notorious Marquis de Sade, no matter how weirdly entertaining Kaufman and screenwriter Doug Wright make it appear.
Kaufman, who directed "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Henry & June," arguably among the best and worst erotic films of all time, obviously has a firm, dare we say, grasp of the material.
Wright, who adapts from his own stage play, puts such marvelously crafted words in the mouths of his characters that you'd swear he must have wandered among the poor inmates of the Charenton Asylum for the Insane.
That's where Sade (Geoffrey Rush) was housed in the very early 19th century and where he finally met his grotesque demise (though not in the way shown here). As Wright cleverly tells it, events leading to the Marquis' death began when his works were smuggled out of the asylum and created enough of a stir to inspire Napoleon to crack down on the pornographic writings.
Enter Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a jailer whose penchant for sadistic torture adds the kind of ironic twist that makes "Quills" so dastardly brilliant. (Another is that Collard's teen-age wife, kept under lock and key, herself takes refuge in one of Sade's graphic novels.)
Anyway, the battle of wills begins, with the kindly priest (Joaquin Phoenix) running the asylum and the sexy washerwoman (Kate Winslet) smuggling Sade's works, trapped in the mad, mad world created by two interestingly vile men.
Issues of expression, censorship and power, as well as Oscar-worthy performances all around, particularly from the ranting, raving, roguish Rush, help color "Quills" vibrantly relevant.
January 8: From the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages:
Review by Julie Caniglia:
Brimming with sexual intrigue, madness, and repression, Quills comes as a bracing tonic for another seasonal overdose of sugarplum sentiment. Shirking the biopic format for a fruitful mix of fact and fiction, it focuses on the last months of the Marquis de Sade, who's smuggling his tawdry manuscripts out of the Charenton asylum. His accomplice is the buxom laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who steals the papers away with the rest of the Marquis's dirty laundry. Their relationship isn't all business, however: "You have a key--now slip it through my tiny hole!" hisses the elegantly bedraggled Marquis, demanding a visit.
With ample opportunities for kinky bons mots and louche double-entendres, Quills makes clear from its first moments that it's not another one of those ponderous, self-consciously transgressive sex flicks. Instead, director Philip Kaufman (auteur of such tony erotica as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry and June) and screenwriter Doug Wright (who adapted Quills from his Obie-award-winning play) focus on telling a rollicking good story--while also managing to fold in less titillating themes of social control, censorship, and freedom of expression.
The intrigue flickers to life immediately, with the anonymously published Justine scandalizing France. An outraged Napoleon, suspecting the Marquis, decides against executing the man (that would only create a martyr), choosing instead to make his life hell by means of a "cure." He dispatches the dastardly Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to oversee Charenton, where the benevolent Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) employs art and self-expression as palliatives for his mentally unstable charges (and resists his less-chaste impulses toward Madeleine). The narrative moves along with such brisk, almost giddy energy that one scarcely notices the embers of destruction smoldering in the background. Suffice it to say that the asylum--a fairly pleasant place, whose residents put on plays for the local nobility--devolves into a true madhouse.
It doesn't take a lit student to draw the neat triangular relationship between the doctor's moral conservatism, the abbé's liberal humanism, and the Marquis's libertinism. The first two (naturally) repress their perversions, demons, and hypocrisies, while the dissipated Sade lives to expose them. Moreover, all three revolve around Madeleine.
Young and impressionable, she represents the amorphous, unpredictable "audience" that moral crusaders wring their hands over and libertines would ostensibly corrupt--and yet, as played with earthy verve by Winslet, she's guided by her own desires and motivations. Given the Marquis's charisma, it's easy to see how she is thrilled (though hardly turned on) by him: She relishes reading his tales to her friends, but resists becoming his sex slave. In other words, art (even if your definition includes smut) can inspire, provide escape, and give pleasure and meaning to life, but it can't overwhelm a person's own sense of self or judgment. (Or can it?)
Despite all its thematic machinations, Quills doesn't sacrifice narrative to drive home its messages. Even without the sex, the plot is simply too juicy to get preachy, larded as it is with gossip, black comedy, and good old Gothic chills. And then there's Geoffrey Rush, who could read a software manual and have the audience on the edge of their seats. His multifaceted Sade--control freak, cocky egomaniac, pathetic louse, satirist supreme, and, perhaps most important, a man whose rage sets him on the edge of madness--is ferociously, horrifically seductive, playing to what is probably his most mainstream audience yet.
I'd imagine that the stage version of Quills was grounded in witty wordplay and philosophical inquiry. As a film, however, Quills has it both ways in the best of ways: It revels in scandal, gore, and sensuousness while offering up a brainy feast for thought as wide-ranging as Sade's notorious sexual appetite.
January 8: From Pop Matters:
"Provocateur Extraordinaire," by Tobias Petersen:
The very mention of the Marquis de Sade calls to mind debaucherous libertines in powdered wigs, buckled shoes, and ruffled shirts, engaging in dangerous liaisons with an orgiastic fervor. While these images are by no means groundless, the Marquis' infamous and explicit literature inspired, and continues to inspire, serious debate surrounding censorship and the relationship between fiction and morality. And if we believe all that Philip Kaufman's Quills has to tell us about the man, Sade is much more than a randy aristocrat -- he is a champion of free speech and artistic integrity.
Adapted by Doug Wright from his own play, Quills is a fictional account of the Marquis de Sade's factual internment in Paris's Charenton Asylum for the Insane at the turn of the 19th century. Nearly the entire film is set on the grounds of the asylum, whose bleak stone walls, iron bars, and dank rooms make the atmosphere appropriately repressive. Director Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Henry and June), production designer Martin Childs, and cinematographer Rogier Stoffers compose these scenes to amplify the surreal and maddening effects of the asylum, which is clearly not a place to rehabilitate, but rather to lock away the inmates. Just so, the resident "imbeciles" -- unfortunate souls suffering various mental afflictions -- become so many caricatures of insanity, hooting, drooling, and shuffling, almost as backdrop for the main action. Such a backdrop is important for the film's point, however, because it juxtaposes and also mirrors French society at the end of the Reign of Terror, when Robespierre rose to power and had aristocrats and monarchists throughout the country guillotined. Sade was, in fact, transferred to Charenton from the Bastille (where he was imprisoned on charges of sodomy unrelated to the political punishments meted out during the Terror) just ten days before the Bastille was famously stormed by an angry mob of French peasantry.
As the film's opening moments illustrate, the Reign of Terror was indeed terrible. The camera opens on the face of an unidentified young woman, contorted in spasms of what could be either pleasure or pain. As two huge hands -- dirty and masculine -- close around her throat, the woman's excitement and fear visibly increase. The scene is charged with an undercurrent of sexual tension before the camera pans swiftly back to reveal the young woman to be the latest unfortunate member of the bourgeoisie to face execution at the grubby hands of guillotine master. A crowd gathers eagerly around the spectacle, its bloodlust unsated by the previous dozen executions -- implied by the wagonfull of headless corpses at the foot of the execution platform. The Marquis de Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) looks down through a tower window on the scene from above, perhaps merely interested, perhaps passing his own judgment. The scene -- and Sade's hard-to-read response to it -- call into question the assignment and maintenance of "sanity" in his society, one that condemns and incarcerates him for his explicit writings, while at the same publicly decapitating human beings for mass entertainment. And, when on any given evening tv viewers can tune into a spectacularly violent show like Cops or home video programs with titles as evocative as When Animals Attack, Part 7 , or indulge in the many texts dealing with serial killers and monsters, Quills is also questioning our own hypocrisies in judging sanity, morality, or "family values" while simultaneously reveling in such spectacular displays of violence.
In this context, then, Quills portrays Sade as continually besieged by public polemics against his controversial writings. His sexually explicit fare can not be tolerated by the God-fearing French lawmakers, even though, as the exasperated Marquis points out in his own defense, "It's fiction, not a moral treatise." While the streets of Sade's France literally ran with blood, he seems justified in questioning the logic of censoring his make-believe while beheadings were a daily occurrence. Then and now, the cultural fascination with real life violence is too readily overlooked when, by contrast, works of fiction describing sexual acts face comparatively stiff censorship under the supposed guise of moral righteousness. In confronting such hypocrisy, Rush's Sade is by turns wickedly provocative and agonizingly frustrated. At all times, Rush's Sade is overtly lustful and lascivious. When he asks, "Who doesn't dream of indulging every spasm of lust?", it is clear that Sade (suggestively licking his lips in one scene, flashing a hungry glance toward a servant girl in another) can be included in this group.
Standing against the Marquis in the interest of public decency is the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the priest officially in charge of Charenton. A far cry from the four-foot tall hunchback that Coulmier was in real life, Phoenix is nevertheless convincing as a man conflicted over his abiding respect for his friend, the Marquis, and his need to censor Sade's increasingly erratic behavior and shocking writings. The Marquis is shown to have an overwhelming compulsion to write -- an almost pathological obsession that forces the Abbe first to remove his patient's quills and ink, followed next by his furniture when he writes with red wine and a wishbone upon a bed sheet, and eventually, all his clothing when he inks a story in his own blood upon his clothes. Still, as the end of the story graphically details, the Abbe's efforts cannot fully depirve the wily Sade ofwriting... material, shall we say.
In yet another attempt to control the wayward author, the state brings in Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Cain), a tyrannical psychologist with a reputation for harsh treatment. As the doctor, Cain is effective if not imaginative, though he is not wholly to blame. The script paints Royer-Collard as an unrepentant hypocrite of almost cartoonish proportions. Whether he is subjecting his new underage bride (Amelia Warner) to his unwanted sexual advances, forcibly dunking mental patients in water to "improve" their conditions, or ordering the disobedient servant girl Madeleine (played flawlessly by Kate Winslet) to be flogged publicly, the doctor embraces cruelty as much as the Marquis embraces sexual excess. While it may be hard to see the lecherous Sade as a traditional hero, in Quills, it is painfully obvious just who the villain is.
This villain must be written blatantly, though, because the film's defense of Sade depends on the stark contrast between his desire for creative expression and the mercilessly repressive forces embodied in Dr. Royer-Collard. In fact, when he's stripped naked in his cell, the pale and stringy-haired Sade is a visual reminder of another, more modern, figure of moral controversy and questionable taste. Though the time for Marilyn Manson's iconoclastic crusade may have passed (his latest album garnering few sales and little moral outrage), the singer's controversial history -- especially the accusations concerning his responsibility for the murders at Columbine High School -- demonstrates how easily provocative art can become the scapegoat for society's ills. Two hundred years after the Marquis was forcibly silenced by a repressive French regime, outraged parents and religious groups managed to disrupt a Manson tour (mainly in the Bible-thumping heart of the Midwestern U.S.) with many of the same charges. Such outraged responses suggest that the demonized Marquis de Sade and the questions he posed concerning legislation of speech or thought remain relevant.
According to Quills, such questions can become a matter of life and death. The Marquis' defiance of both Dr. Royer-Collard and Abbe Coulmier shows his staunch rejection of any efforts to quell his self-expression. No longer satisfied with simply being the devil's advocate, Sade becomes increasingly devilish in his own right -- sexually taunting the Abbe and unwittingly inciting a riot among his fellow inmates with another erotic tale. The film, as a consequence, takes a dark turn. Rape and murder befall well-intentioned characters as an indirect result of Sade's agitations, revealing a dire price to be paid for his artistic statements. And yet, Sade continues to defend his art, claiming, "In order to know virtue, we must acquaint ourselves with vice. Only then can we know the full measure of Man." Quills acquaints us with vice, suggesting that the dark side of humanity is not to be found in the Marquis' sexual appetites but instead in the fevered and hypocritical compulsion to eradicate any behavior or opinion that does not toe the line drawn by the moral majority.
January 5: From the Arizona Daily Star:
Review by Gene Armstrong
Locked away from polite society in Charenton Asylum, the Marquis de Sade lives as a decadent, fallen aristocrat in director Philip Kaufman's new movie "Quills." Played with gusto by Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, de Sade never ceases writing and never ceases playing the hedonistic nemesis to what he views as a hypocritical culture.
In this lavish film, we find the subversive French writer who inspired the word "sadism" in Charenton during the final years of the 18th century. He's been committed by his estranged and embarrassed wife, Renée Pelagie (played by Jane Menelaus, Rush's real-life wife). But the marquis lives in relative ease, virtually pampered by the institution's kind director, Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). Within the walls of Charenton, de Sade has a feather bed, an antique writing desk, his books, a personal stock of wine and access to the finest foods.
The manuscripts for de Sade's latest novel, "Justine," are smuggled out of Charenton by the scullery maid Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who is sympathetic to and titillated by the marquis and his inflammatory writings. The book is sold like contraband on dark street corners and read in celebratory fashion on soapboxes before the authorities seize and burn copies.
Napoleon's wrath comes down on the randy, childish de Sade in the form of Dr. Royer-Collard, a brutal "alienist" who subjects his patients to torture to cure them of their mental sicknesses. No small sadist himself, Royer-Collard is played with an ironic patrician air by Michael Caine. Royer-Collard and Abbé Coulmier lock horns about treatment methods, and de Sade is the prize over which they fight.
After de Sade ridicules Royer-Collard in a picaresque drama starring the Charenton inmates, the Abbé is ordered to silence the marquis and see that his writing does not reach the populace outside the gates.
Vigorous battles of wills ensue - de Sade vs. Royer-Collard, the Abbé vs. de Sade, the Abbé vs. Royer-Collard, de Sade vs. the Abbé, etc.
Winners and losers are never certain, but the battle is an explosive one.
When his quills, ink and paper are taken from him, de Sade writes in his blood on his clothes. When he is stripped naked and chained to the floor, he writes in excrement on the walls of his dungeon.
As a period piece, "Quills" is beautiful to watch, but Martin Childs' excellent production design and the lush cinematography by Rogier Stoffers would only be so much window dressing if the script were lacking. Doug Wright's screenplay (based on his play of the same name) ably juggles irony, sarcasm, vulgarity and an argument for free speech amid roiling tempests of language.
As portrayed by Rush and directed by Philip Kaufman ("Henry and June," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"), this Marquis de Sade is a populist pornographer, a heretical heathen voicing the forbidden lusts and untoward desires that most citizens dare not even think. The marquis' vulgarity is necessary; it helps define the extreme parameters of morality the society in which he dwells.
It should be noted that no matter what de Sade may have done before landing in the asylum, he is suppressed during this plot not for what he does but for what he thinks and expresses. He's persecuted for envisioning taboos rather than acting them out.
As far the performances, Rush delivers a colorful and propulsive one, sparking thoughts of Oscar nominations. Winslet tempers her portrayal of the lower-class Madeliene with a coy curiosity. Phoenix nails his second impressive role in the past year, following his Emperor Commodus in "Gladiator."
Only the film's pat resolution works against it. Loose ends are judiciously, compulsively tied up, and there is an annoying symmetry in much of the plot's final twists. Nevertheless, "Quills" is a powerful exploration of artistic defiance and the quest to ensure that minds, even those deemed dangerous, remain free.