It is quite easy for serious filmgoers to get excited over thenew drama Quills. For one, it is the first piece of cinema with substance Hollywood haschurned out of late and, second, it marks the return of director Philip Kaufman, theman responsible for two of the best films of the 1980s if not of all time; The Right Stuff andThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being.
A movie filled with intelligence, brilliant acting and somewicked jabs of dark humor, Quills is a tour-de-force of filmmaking that will stay with you forquite some time. Based on the stage play by Doug Wright, Quills takes place at the turn of the18th Century in France. The Marquis De Sade (Geoffrey Rush) spends the remaining days of hislife inside a mental institution called Charenton, where he furiously writes away with quillsand parchment his tales of graphic sexual perversity. Thanks to a virginal linen girl namedMadeleine (Kate Winslet) who smuggles his writing out of the asylum for him, his work is all therage on the streets of Paris. It certainly isn’t the rage (but certainly evokes agreat deal of rage) with the country’s authorities, which send the hypocriticalDr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton to “cure” Sade of his wicked ways.
Despite Royer-Collard’s harsh treatment (ones that, at times, ironically border on the sadistic) and his removal ofthe Marquis’ precious writing instruments, Sade continues to write his tales with anything hecan use as ink, be it wine, blood or faeces. He continues to defy the powers that be despite thefact that his world and his sanity are crumbling around him.
As he showed with 1988′s The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and 1990′s Henry & June, Philip Kaufman knows how to balancedrama, dark comedy and eroticism rather well. The story may revolve around Sade,but it’s underlying themes concern the battle for free speech and how some artists will go to extreme andsometimes fatal lengths in order to be heard (or in this case, read). Kaufman’s skillful handling ofDoug Wright’s smart screenplay envelops the viewer into both the proceedings and the time era. Only the denouement, which shows what happens to the asylum and its tormented abb,Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), tends to drag the film out, if only slightly. As with Kaufman’s otherfilms, the cast is first rate. Geoffrey Rush plays Sade with an energy level so strong itcould run a subway car. It is a showy role to be sure, but Oscar winner Rush knows when to pull in the reinswhen need be, and brings us a performance that should not be forgotten come Oscar time this year. KateWinslet is equally impressive as Madeline, the beautiful young woman who is set free from herdreadful life by reading Sade’s wicked tales. Her nicely nuanced performance proves yet againthat she is one of the best young actresses working in film today (and that she was thereal star of “that boat film”). Joaquin Phoenix, hot off his solid turn inGladiator, is also excellent as Coulmier, while Michael Caine turns in a fun (and creepy) turnas the sadistic doctor of the asylum. Each of these thespians work well off of each other andmanage not to overshadow each other (quite an accomplishment especially with the screen presence ofRush).
I am not sure how you feel about the Marquis De Sade or his work. Personally, his workstruck me as nothing more than an 18th century version of a Penthouse magazine letter. Butwhether you like or loathe his work, or appreciate it’s historical and literary value or would prefer to see it banned forever, those who appreciate well-crafted and wickedly sly cinemashould make Quills required viewing.