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Quills

Philip Kaufman's Quills, based on Doug Wright's Obie award-winning play, is not for those looking to learn about the real-life adventures of the Marquis de Sade. The thrice Oscar-nominated film is visually stunning, yes. It offers a world-class scenery-chewing performance by Geoffrey Rush, of course. And it is — for the first two-thirds, anyway — a well-crafted piece of theater. But it's no more a "biopic" or historically accurate than ... oh, pick a movie. Shakespeare in Love. Amadeus. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Which is all right. Movies are, after all, entertainments and not history lessons. Quills is a sort of tragicomedy burlesque, as Kaufman gives us the Marquis during his last days at Charendon Aylum. Rush's Sade is a man who lives to write, his literary endeavors encouraged by the progressive Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who views Sade's obsessive scribblings as therapeutic. He smuggles his works to the outside world through the laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet). When the popularity of the published works reaches the ears of Napoleon, a new chief alienist, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is dispatched to get Sade under control. Their methods are at odds: When the Abbé tells him that the plays are good therapy for the patients, Royer-Collard drawls that "playing dress-up with cretins sounds like a symptom of madness, not a cure." And after a scandalous performance that satirizes the doctor's own less-than-pious personal life, Royer-Collard shuts down the theater and commands the Abbé to stop Sade from writing. Deprived of his quills, Sade writes anyway, using wine and a chicken bone — and later other, more desperate materials. Quills is, overall, a puzzler. It feels like a morality tale, but what's the moral? One senses that one is supposed to feel sympathy for the Marquis, and outrage that his little dirty stories were censored by stuffy old men who were privately indulging their own perversions. But in reality, the Marquis de Sade didn't write "erotica." He was no Anais Nin. Much of his writings were merely pornographic, but other works were horrific tales of debauched gore. He also put forth the belief that, as a member of the upper class and a man following "his true nature," he was justified in indulging his tastes for brutality and murder, not just on the page but in real life. Ultimately, Quills collapses under the weight of all the baggage it carries in the form of ethical questions: Who should be censored? What is freedom, really? What are the motivations behind the arbiters of public decency? Kaufman and Wright try to ask these questions in the form of a farcical black comedy, but the result is neither amusing nor deep. Fox's DVD release of Quills offers a rich, crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. The disc has a good collection of extras, including a gossipy commentary track by screenwriter Doug Wright; a still gallery of prop letters and design sketches; two theatrical trailers (one in Spanish) and a TV spot; and three very illuminating featurettes — "Marquis on the Marquee" about the development of the project, "Creating Charendon" on the work of production designer Martin Childs, and "Dressing the Part" with Jacqueline West discussing her costume designs. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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