2000, R, 123 min. Directed by Philip Kaufman. Starring Billie Whitelaw, Amelia Warner, Michael Caine, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet, Geoffrey Rush.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 29, 2000
“Tell me more,” whisper the titillated listeners of the imprisoned Marquis de Sade's stories of sexual perversion in this fictionalized account of the notorious writer's latter years. Adapted by Doug Wright from his successful play, Quills accomplishes many interesting things, even though precise historical accuracy is not one of them. Despite this, Quills is a stunningly impassioned and articulate study of a writer's life and the censorial demons that can strangle that voice -- or, more in keeping with the Marquis' times, behead it with the stroke of a guillotine. Quills offers a cry in the wilderness against the forces of censorship, a plea whose arguments are as contemporary as ever. This examination of writers and their sexual boundaries -- and those of society at large -- is familiar territory for director Kaufman, who explored some of this terrain in at least a couple of previous films, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June. Kaufman's study is goosed along by the phenomenal central performance of Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade. It is vigorous, funny, aristocratic, and demented, and includes full-frontal nudity and self-mutilation. This de Sade, however, is a toned-down villain from the one whose name birthed the term “sadism.” Gone is the perverse aristocrat whose writings sanction acts of murder in the quest for pleasure. Kaufman's focus rests solidly with freedom-of-expression issues and the more socially acceptable aspects of the Sadean heritage. The film is set in the Charenton Asylum, where de Sade spent the last decade of his life in confined luxury, passing his time in the “therapeutic” pursuit of writing and directing plays starring the inmates, and the illicit pursuit of writing novels that were smuggled off the grounds with the assistance of a comely laundry lass (Winslet). The asylum is overseen by a compassionate prelate (Phoenix), who shows a dangerous understanding of the Marquis de Sade's frustrations and a repressed longing for the laundry girl Madeleine. His directorship is soon usurped by that of a Napoleonic appointee Dr. Antoine Royer-Collard (Caine), a conservative moralist who is seen to be using his own forms of physical torture to bend the insane inmates to his will. Quills clearly argues that the punishments of this doctor as well as the harsh guillotine justice doled out by the partisans of the Reign of Terror are socially sanctioned tortures that must be viewed in light of the comparative actions of the imprisoned Marquis. And given the audience-friendly tone of what we hear in this film of de Sade's own words, the novels are made to sound more like pornographic stroke books than sexually perverse torture treatises. Literary arguments have raged over the years concerning the liberating influence of de Sade's writings, and Quills will not bring resolution to any of these debates. But true to the spirit of its subject, the actors' interpretations of these characters become their own works of art and together they create a work that pushes the boundaries.