Quills Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000


Quills logo

My dear readers... let me tell you of the newest film from director Philip Kaufman ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being"), a moral treatise by the name of "Quills". With a story plucked from the play by Doug Wright, it is a melodrama fashioned around the debauchery and deviancy that sprung from the disturbed mind of one Marquis de Sade. In its two-hour traffic on the screen, involving a cast of characters whose proclivities run from the pious to the perverse, a disturbing tale rife with passion and cruelty is recounted, whose meaning and context are not too far removed from the moral debates of our modern day. So I challenge you, dear readers, to lay bare your sensibilities to this celluloid concoction...

Some things belong on paper, others in life. It's a blessed fool who can't tell the difference.
Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet

Our tale begins in the late Eighteenth Century, on the grounds of the Charenton Asylum for the Insane. It is here that the 61-year old Count Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, better known as Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush of "Shine"), is imprisoned, his fate sealed by his salacious manuscripts and his predilection for carnal perversions. However, in comparison to the other unfortunate souls interred here, Sade resides in relative comfort, thanks to the influence and affluence of Sade's wife, whose monthly stipend ensures that his cell is stocked with modest luxuries, including a generous supply of paper, ink, and quills. Sade is also fortunate to find an ally in the priest who runs the asylum, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix of "Gladiator")-- it is his belief that salvation for Charenton's most nefarious inmate lies in purging the wicked thoughts onto the written page.

It's nothing but an encyclopedia of perversions. One man killed his wife after reading them.
It's a fiction... not a moral treatise.

Unfortunately, what Abbe does not know is that Sade has been smuggling his tawdry tomes to an outside publisher with the help of buxom chambermaid Madeleine (Kate Winslet of "Titanic"). So when the publication of Sade's latest ribald accounts comes to the attention of Emperor Napoleon, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine of "The Cider House Rules") is ordered to put Coulmier's house in order, particularly with respect to its most infamous inmate.

Michael Caine and Amelia Warner

But you see, the good doctor, despite his moralistic bravado, is a hypocrite, since he traffics in the very sort of thing he denounces. He has recently brought home his far-too-young wife Simone (Amelia Warner of "Mansfield Park"), whom he has relegated to the status of indentured servitude by locking her in his mansion and having his way with her as he sees fit.

If you're going to martyr yourself Abbe, do it for God, not the chambermaid.

What then transgresses is a battle of wills between Royer-Collard and Sade, with the latter finding new and innovative means to continue his writing, in spite of the former's attempts to confiscate his writing materials. Caught in the middle are Coulmier, who does not approve of the good doctor's savage methods, and Madeleine, who finds inspiration in Sade's writing, and whom Coulmier secretly holds a flame for.

How can we know who is good, and who is evil?
All we can do is guard against our own corruption.
Joaquin Phoenix

While the setting may be Eighteenth century France, the drama that unfolds has much bearing on the modern world. As was the emphasis of the original stage play, "Quills" is an examination of the unending debate on freedom of expression, particularly the role that art and media play in the ills of society. The circumstances in which the characters find themselves are not much different than the public debate that is ongoing today. Instead of contesting the merits and censoring the writings of Sade, we find ourselves embroiled in the controversies surrounding violence in the media, whether it be in the movies, television, or video games. With the memories of the Columbine tragedy still fresh in the minds of North Americans, and the recent lawsuits against Oliver Stone for murders inspired by "Natural Born Killers", "Quills" asks a number of pertinent questions. What responsibility do artists have in how their work is interpreted? Does responsibility for the actions arising from one's interpretation lie with the individual? And what role should society play in policing access to art-- or would such effort be better spent policing the individual?

Conversation, like certain portions of the anatomy, always run more smoothly when lubricated.
Rush

Not surprisingly, the key figure in "Quills" has been toned down considerably-- after all, his name has been immortalized in the word 'sadism'. Sade, as portrayed with great ebullience by Geoffrey Rush (probably his best performance since "Shakespeare in Love"), is still a depraved and monomaniacal man, but you have to admire his persistence in continuing his writing, despite the efforts of Royer-Collard. When his quills, ink, and paper are taken away from him, he resorts to using red wine and bed sheets; failing that he uses his own blood and the clothes on his back. He may be one of the most despicable characters in history, but with respect to "Quills", Kaufman is not trying to paint a true-to-life picture of the man-- instead, it is the ideas that the man represents that is important.

Assisting Rush is a bevy of talented performers. Kate Winslet is much more assured than the vacillating performance she delivered in "Titanic", and her zest-for-life and empathetic interpretation of Madelaine serves as a nice counterpoint to Rush's Sade. Joaquin Phoenix, who was terrific as the villain in "Gladiator", is a little more low-key here, though he is still able to convey the conflicted nature of Coulmier. Caine, whose character was apparently infused with the characteristics of one Kenneth Starr, delivers his best work since last year's "The Cider House Rules", as the true villain of the story, a hypocrite who persecutes what he practices.

"Quills" certainly will not be everyone's cup of tea. Some of the events that transpire during the two-hour running time are not only disturbing, but also thought-provoking. Using a fictional account of the final years of Marquis de Sade brought to life by a top-notch cast, "Quills" is both an engaging and accomplished examination of contemporary issues with respect to art and censorship.

Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.


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