Winslet and Rush in Quills USA, 2000. Rated R. 123 minutes.

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, Amelia Warner, Jane Menelaus, Stephen Moyer
Writer: Doug Wright, based upon his play.
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Cinematographer: Rogier Stoffers
Producers: Julia Chasman, Peter Kaufman, Nick Wechsler
Director: Philip Kaufman


Grade: A- Review by Alison Tweedie-Perry

Often in films with historical subjects, details and facts are needlessly changed to serve some Hollywood notion of salability, when the true story would serve just as well. Fabrications and alterations to known historical events can be jarring, wresting the viewer from the narrative’s spell. Most moviegoers, however, are more lovers of tales well told than strict fact fetishists–that is, after all, why they go to the cinema, one of the most engrossing storytelling media yet devised.

Such prejudice for historical accuracy can easily lead to mistrust of Quills, a film about the Marquis de Sade. Viewers who have read any of Sade’s works and know something of his biography may fear that they will be unable to ignore the film’s great lapses in historical verisimilitude (why, not even the words uttered by the celluloid madman were from the actual Marquis’ quill, but the screenwriter’s brain!). Fortunately, what has always been of greatest interest about Sade is not his words (which are, as condemned by a character in the movie, repetitive and poorly wrought), but the ideas those words engender. As for those issues of historical accuracy, from the first gripping scene, which cleverly manipulates the audience’s assumptions, they cease to matter. Quills unspools its absorbing story, enticing the audience with humor and titillation until it ensnares it with horror and pathos, then sends it home to ponder the ramifications.

Adapted by Doug Wright from his play, Quills supposes to find the infamous Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) imprisoned in Charenton insane asylum under the care of the idealistic Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who sees no harm in allowing Sade to exorcise his lascivious demons on paper. Unbeknownst to the abbé, a ripe young chambermaid named Madeleine (Kate Winslet) smuggles Sade’s words out in her laundry basket to a waiting publisher’s assistant and a ravenous public. The purloined letters cause such a stir that the Emperor Napoleon soon hears of the outrageous stories. He orders them burned and the Marquis executed. In an attempt to avoid adding to the long line of recent populist martyrs, the emperor is persuaded to allow noted alienist Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to “reform” the errant nobleman by means more suited to the Spanish Inquisition than the healing profession.

Incensed when he learns the Marquis has been abusing his freedoms by publishing his writings, Abbé Coulmier implores him to rein in his creative urges before the doctor clamps down on them all. Of course, Sade cannot be so easily deterred and grows more offensive, taunting Dr. Royer-Collard by parading the doctor’s own perversities (borne on the gossiping lips of servants to the Marquis’ ears) with a squirmingly hilarious play before the asylum and assorted visitors. Fighting to maintain his control over the asylum, the abbé grows ever more strict, depriving Sade of quills, ink, paper, and all the substitutes for them that the writer fashions from his meals, clothes, and person. Phoenix and Winslet

As the efforts to silence the Marquis tighten, the minds of those who read his stories expand; some are freed, many more are scandalized. The mirror Sade professes to hold up to the world with his words reflects more than the characters–from high-spirited Madeleine to Dr. Royer-Collard’s erstwhile virginal wife to the tormented Coulmier (who, Sade sees all too clearly, loves Madeleine with an ardor beyond God’s grace)–can easily accept.

Here is where the magic of storytelling trumps all adhesion to historical fact. Only the merest particulars of this film actually happened, but that doesn’t prevent the story from ringing true. Quills captures what is perhaps Sade’s only genius: the ability not merely to touch a nerve, but to yank on it and give it a searing twist. Such affronts to hypocrisy and pious outrage, and appeals to deep perversion and thirst for artistic freedom caused all manner of real consequences–from the Marquis’ own almost-lifelong imprisonment to the rise of the sexual cult that bears his name to the creation of incendiary art that lives today with the likes of Marilyn Manson and Madonna. The film deftly plucks all these chords and, while it has a clear preference for the preservation of creative expression, never resorts to bloodless dogma. On the contrary, it provides quite a bit of blood, along with every other bit of fluid and ordure the human animal produces, expelled for every reason the human animal can devise: passion, pain, joy, fear, mirth, hatred, and even love.

Whether genuinely mad, wickedly inspired, or–more likely–some combination of the two, the Marquis, as zestfully portrayed by Rush, presents the mind of the story. His ideas and the lengths to which he goes to express them are captivating and inflammatory. Winslet’s voluptuous Madeleine, chaste but far from naïve, gives the film its heart. Her indispensable goodwill toward the Marquis and her love of the abbé leave them all open to destruction. Though it seems trite to say so, Phoenix’s tender holy man provides the soul of the tale. In his mission to shepherd the tormented spirits in his care, his presence counsels tolerance regardless of understanding.
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The performances are uniformly outstanding. Geoffrey Rush is broad but believable. He is, after all, portraying a real person as naked symbol and mewling id. It’s a tall order he more than handily fills. Kate Winslet brings her oft-mentioned luminosity, as well as her undervalued wit and warmth, to her supporting but pivotal role. The surprise is Joaquin Phoenix. Proving that his layered performance as the petulant, scheming Emperor Commodus in Gladiator was no fluke (and that English accents improve with practice), Phoenix spreads his wings and displays an impressive range. Gentle and idealistic, trusting but not simple, he imbues the abbé with a grace that would be difficult for many more celebrated actors to pull off. Michael Caine assays the doctor with a natural demeanor and brisk, businesslike air that prevent the role from being merely a cartoon villain.

No story so well fleshed-out as this one could possibly fall victim to the arid mustiness that some expect of historical dramas. Further, director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff) fully realizes this film, saving it from the stilted talky-ness that plagues so many stage plays adapted to the screen. There's a giddy naughtiness to the first act that seems to twist and morph into the morbid debauchery of the last, leaving open the question of where the responsibility for the outcome lies. The very end is perhaps too patently ironic and predictable, but only because what has gone before is so thrilling.

It is possible that a more factual rendering of the Marquis de Sade’s life could be made into an engaging film. There is enough drama inherent in the details of his existence to fashion a watchable, if rote, history. The greater art, however, lies in probing Sade’s larger meaning and impact without leeching the subject of its color and allure. Quills masterfully makes this artistic reach beyond the facts and grasps the truth.

Review © December 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox and any of its related entities.

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