US 2000

dir Philip Kaufman

scr Doug Wright, based on his play

cin Rogier Stoffers

stars Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine

122 minutes

Quills is exactly what a movie about the Marquis de Sade shouldn’t be: slick, professional, conventional, predictable, sentimental, about as likely to be banned, picketed or burned as Thomas and the Magic Railroad. There is a fair amount of wildness in Geoffrey Rush’s full-tilt performance as the Marquis, but very little in either Kaufman’s sure-handed direction, or in Wright’s script, which sets up de Sade as an ambiguous, arrogant, eminently dislikeable anti-hero, only to turn him into an iconic martyr for free speech and self expression.

The most extreme element about the movie is the artistic license taken with de Sade’s actual history – he was an inmate at the Charenton asylum towards the end of his life, but Quills‘ plot mechanics are pure fantasy, especially the grisly nature of his demise. To ram home his points, Wright surrounds Rush with a cardboard gallery of heroes (Winslet’s brave, doomed laundress, smuggling out Rush’s illicit texts to his publisher; Phoenix’s idealistic young priest in charge of the asylum) and villains, headed by Caine’s censorious investigator, exposed a financial, moral, sexual hypocrite who the audience is invited to boo at every turn.

There’s something similarly troubling about the underdeveloped background characters – all gibbering inmates, popeyed peasants, chortling chambermaids. Quills is a handsomely mounted period drama, but the surface smoothness ends up working against material which cries out for risky, nervy, perhaps even gaudy direction. Where the best asylum pictures, such as Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, have the guts to end on disturbing, downbeat notes, Quills resorts to a reassuringly positive neatness, with de Sade’s inspiration living on through an unexpected source.

Ken Russell’s The Devils ploughed similar territory with much more verve, while even Hammer’s late Peter Cushing Frankenstein pictures – specifically Monster From Hell, which Quills oddly resembles – would be a refreshingly coarse alternative to the impeccable intellectual good taste on display here. But Kaufman and Wright pull back from the brink. Late on, just as it appears Phoenix is about to indulge in a bit of priestly necrophilia, it turns out to be nothing more a vivid dream, never crossing over into ecstatic, abandoned fulfilment – just like Quills, in fact.