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QUILLS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine
Director:  Philip Kaufman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  124 Minutes
Release Date:  May 8, 2001

COULMIER:  You are not to entertain guests here.
MARQUIS:  I'm entertaining you, aren't I?
COULMIER:  I'm not a beautiful young prospect, ripe for corruption.
MARQUIS:  Don't be so sure.

Film ***1/2

Quills  is a curious, fascinating film that takes one of history's most renowned and possibly mad sinners in the Marquis de Sade and makes him the centerpiece of a story that is more mentally liberating than it is physical.  It's also quite funny, quite sexy, and appropriately enough, quite disturbing.

The Marquis (Rush) is a man with a taste for the perverse.  He is thought to have pioneered the art of deriving sexual pleasure from pain (hence the modern term ‘sadism').  He wrote volumes of the most explicit and scandalous literature ever descendant upon 18th century France…or for that matter, any time and any location.  He spent a great many years of his life in and out of prison, until, spared from the guillotine by Napoleon, he was banished to a mental institution to live out the remainder of his life.

But in Quills, the Marquis remains a suitably enigmatic figure.  History has made him the kind of man known more through others' reactions to him than for who he was himself.  The picture leaves us free to judge him as we see fit; others in the film do the same, and whether they want to save his soul like the Abbe de Coulmier (Phoenix) or tame his body like the doctor Royer-Collard (Caine), the Marquis left his mark on many.  The scars of his scintillating tastes in pleasure often scantly compared to the ones he left on the mind.

Coulmier had allowed de Sade to continue his writings within his room, in hopes that he would eventually purge his demons through his art.  But the Marquis was never so concerned with the purging of demons as he was inflicting them upon others:  with the help of a beautiful young chambermaid, Madeline (Winslet), the pages of his novel Justine find their way into publication.  The book was systematically banned and ceremoniously burned, but adamantly irascible.

Royer-Collard eventually came to the institution at the behest of the emperor to try and curtail the Marquis' influence.  Both he and Coulmier try to silence de Sade, each for his own personal reasons, but it proves an uneasy task.  The Marquis openly mocks the aged doctor and his new child bride, exposing his sexual hypocrisy in a play acted out by the other inmates.  The doctor is not amused; is it any wonder, however, that his blushing bride soon becomes a fan of de Sade's works?

Coulmier's attempts to stifle the Marquis are always in vain:  stripped of his quills and ink, de Sade writes at first with a chicken bone and red wine on his linens.  Under heavier and heavier oppression, he takes up writing with his own blood, and his own excrement.  In one of the film's best sequences, he dictates a violent new tale from cell to cell via a chain of inmates to the waiting pen of Madeline, who eagerly commits the new opus to paper.  “My prose filtered through the minds of the insane,” the Marquis muses.  “Maybe they'll improve it.”

But society as a whole simply wasn't ready for the quill of the Marquis.  His work is soon blamed for a horrible tragedy.  “If someone drowned attempting to walk on water,” he asks Coulmier, “would you burn the Bible?”   However, by that time, it has evolved into more than a question of decency and standards.  It is clear that de Sade has touched upon something in the story's other protagonists that they would rather not face, and that aspect made him more dangerous than any explicit or pornographic depiction he set to paper.

The film, in strange ways, is a celebration of creativity, expression and art, though history generally doesn't proclaim the Marquis de Sade as a particular high point of any of them.  “My writing is as involuntary as my heartbeat,” he pleads to Coulmier at an anxious moment.   We all have something to express.  Perhaps, somehow, there is an equilibrium achieved:  for every volume of writing like those of de Sade, there is a film like Quills.

This movie is triumphant in the way it blends the artistic detail of a good period piece with the lurid melodrama of a juicy soap opera.  It is a wonderful mixture of style and story, brilliantly penned by Doug Wright (based on his play) and set to film by director Philip Kaufman.  The performances are sheer perfection.  Geoffrey Rush captures the dark madness of the Marquis in a way that is both enticing and frightening, and Joaquin Phoenix continues his string of excellent work as the tortured Abbe.  Michael Caine brings the right amount of civil sinistery to the role of the doctor, and beautiful Kate Winslet blossoms once again in a heartfelt portrayal of Madeline.

Enjoy Quills as a character driven exploration of art, perversion, and madness, superbly crafted and beautifully performed.  Just hope that after two hours with history's most notorious literary deviant that your mind will be yours again.

ROYER-COLLARD:  And will you sleep soundly tonight?
COULMIER:  No.  Plainly put, I never expect to sleep again.

Video ***1/2

This is another superb anamorphic offering from Fox.  This picture has a very distinct look:  like most modern period films, it relies heavily on natural and available lighting for effect, but unlike them, it forgoes a bright, expressive palate for a cooler and more subdued one.  Skies are overcast, and images are often shown with a little extra blue in the hue to convey this sense of grayness.  The effect is perfect, and expertly done.  Image detail is very good, and colors render beautifully with no hints of distortions or lack of containment.  Visuals are sharp, except when lighting schemes demand a touch of softness.  Despite low lighting levels, this film suffers from none of the grain high contrast stock normally exhibits.  All in all, a very praiseworthy effort.

Audio ***

The 5.1 channel sees most of its action on the forward stage, with clear dialogue and pristine sounding music.  Occasionally, the rear channels are harnessed for extra effects, as in crowd scenes or for reverberations within the asylum walls.  One scene near the end makes surprisingly expressive use of multi-channel sound…I'll leave it for you to discover.  The .1 channel doesn't see much action, but it isn't missed, given the nature of the picture.  Dynamic range is medium.  Overall, the soundtrack is good and perfectly suitable.

Features ***1/2

The extras begin with an informative commentary track by screenwriter Doug Wright.  He was present on scene during most of the filming, so his scope of knowledge extends beyond the boundaries of the script itself.  There are three short featurettes, one on costuming, one on set design, and one on “Marquis on the Marquee”.  The latter features interviews with the cast and crew.  There are two trailers and a TV spot, a stills gallery, a music promo, and some additional information about the real life versions of the characters depicted in the film.

Summary: 

Quills is smart, succulent, and delightfully wicked filmmaking at its very best.  The movie, and this excellent DVD offering from Fox, does more to make the Marquis de Sade palatable than you could imagine.  His works weren't for everyone, but this picture should please everyone with a taste for a little something different, better, and dangerous.