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Fox Home Video

Starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Michael Caine

Written by Doug Wright
Directed by Philip Kaufman

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

I wonder what the Marquis de Sade would think of the rep he has in 21st century Western culture. His name has become synonymous with kinky sex (which would no doubt have pleased him) and discussions of his work in polite society have pretty much lost their shock value (which would have probably dismayed him). The main reason for this is that, while most people think they know what de Sade's work was about, they haven't ever read any of it, nor do they really know anything about the man.

Philip Kaufman's Quills, based on Doug Wright's Obie award-winning play, doesn't offer any elucidation on these matters. It's 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, I suppose. Movies are, after all, entertainments and not history lessons.

Quills is a sort of tragicomedy burlesque, with characters writ large and simple in as befits a rather awkward primer on the evils of censorship. Kaufman gives us the Marquis during his last days at Charendon Asylum — imprisoned for reasons that are left sort of open to interpretation. When the new chief physician, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), asks why Sade is in an asylum rather than prison, he's told it's because of "his wife's influence ... better to have an insane spouse than a criminal one." In real life, it was his second incarceration at Charendon. The Marquis had spent over 30 years of his life making the rounds of various prisons, due to his unfortunate hobby of brutalizing (and, on at least one occasion, poisoning) prostitutes. We're not told what age the robust and energetic Rush is playing the Marquis here, who died in Charendon at age 74. But he's awfully sprightly for a fellow who spent his last 13 years in an asylum, elderly and in ill health.

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. Aside from the fact that he's behind a big iron door that's locked on the outside, the Marquis has it pretty good — Persian rugs on the floor, a feather bed with velvet curtains, luxe furnishings, fine wine, and a wide assortment of erotic knick-knacks scattered about burgeoning bookshelves. He smuggles his works to the outside world through the believe-it-or-not virginal laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who's the pin-up girl of the madhouse — huge, bald crazy men peek at her and masturbate, the Marquis insists on trading kisses for manuscript pages, and the chaste Abbé moons over her abundant cleavage as he gives her reading lessons.

When the popularity of the published works reaches the ears of Napoleon, Dr. Royer-Collard is dispatched to get Sade under control. Kaufman has said that his inspiration while directing the good doctor was none other than U.S. Independent Counsel (and Clinton investigator) Kenneth Starr, and Caine plays him as an all-out Gothic baddie. On arrival at Charendon, he first sees Sade running a group of asylum inmates through the paces of a play, "The Happy Shoemaker." 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." His methods are more hands-on — Iron Maidens and drowning chairs, to be exact. And when the doctor purchases himself an orphaned child-bride from a nunnery and proceeds to forcibly bugger her on their wedding night, the point is hammered home who the real sadist in this story is.

Asylums being what they are — in the case of Quills, it's sort of a high school with no lockers or dress code — gossip of the doctor's nuptials soon spreads and Sade makes it the subject of a farce, performed for Dr. and Mrs. Royer-Collard by the troupe of crazies in lieu of the shoemaker's tale (given that they have no prior rehearsal and aren't even really actors, they do an amazingly professional job of it.) Predictably irate, Royer-Collard shuts down the theater and commands the good-hearted doormat 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.

And that's the good parts. The last third of Quills wanders, degenerates, and drags on interminably, finally offering three separate resolutions before the movie finally concludes, each "ending" uncannily like the denouement of an episode of Tales from the Crypt. By that point, it's rather hard to care anymore.

*          *          *

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 — he was more like Clive Barker, only without the subtlety. Much of his writings were, by today's standards, just plain old hard-core porn — but other works were horrific tales of debauched gore, offering far greater depravity than simple whips-and-chains action. He regularly featured bishops or priests as characters, purely to outrage the Church; his stories offered necrophilia, coprophilia, dismemberment, and murder as sexual titillations. And he 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. Sorry, but I have a little trouble accepting Sade as just another poor victim of stick-in-the-ass censorship.

Another puzzler is the decidedly un-sexy tone of the movie. Why make a film (or write a play) about the Marquis de Sade at all, if you're going to a) water down his work so that it comes off as mere mainstream stroke material, and b) avoid any real eroticism in the telling of the tale? For a movie that has a fair amount of naked skin, Kate Winslet being flogged, a simulated double-penetration scene, and a lot of people reading dirty stories to each other, Quills is as far from hot as a movie can get. Not to be cruel, but I haven't been this bored by sex since Showgirls.

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 (who adapted his own play for the film) try to ask these questions in the form of a farcical black comedy, but the result is neither amusing nor deep. And in trying to cash in on the current trend of fascination with kink, they offer up a film that has no payoff in that regard, either. So — other than Rush acting up a storm, working at earning that second Oscar nomination — one is left to wonder what really was the point of Quills, after all.

*          *          *

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.

— Dawn Taylor

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