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