As portrayed in Quills, based on the Obie Award-winning play by Doug Wright, the Marquis is an earthy, dirty, jolly old soul with the unquenchable desire to write his perverse dreams on paper. He's the unflinching id in the face of mediocrity and tolerance, the middle finger held like a candle to the powerful hypocrites, and the loud fart in the house of God, an affront to restrictive dogma.
It's not enough that the madman hole up in his room with quill and reams of parchment to indulge his fantasies, no. He has to publish it to the secret, unspoken delight of the masses. Chapters are being smuggled out of the asylum by a curious chambermaid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet from Heavenly Creatures, Titanic). The streets are buzzing with outrage and titillation.
Napoleon (Ron Cook) would love nothing more than to see the head of the Marquis twitching under the guillotine, but martyrdom would only increase the sales and spread the word. Therefore, a man is sent to the asylum with the intent to cure the Marquis of all the devils inside his head, whether it be through torture or, worse, the restriction of his writing privileges.
That upstanding citizen sent to Charenton is Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine, reclaiming his title as Hardest Working Actor in the Business), a man so moral to the core that he marries a young lass whom he could have fathered twice over. This pinnacle of morality even has to force himself upon her on their wedding night.
Our friend the doctor is just the sort of closet dirty bird the Marquis delights in mocking. A play is swiftly written, performed by the inmates of the asylum (which is indeed based on fact, since de Sade's plays were quite popular in his day) about a dirty old man humping his young bride in a variety of sexual positions. Dr. Royer-Collard sits in the audience, silently biding his time. In this battle of wills between doctor and madman, this is only the beginning.
Doug Wright's story takes tremendous liberties with the Marquis' life, but the approach taken by director Philip Kaufman (Henry & June) feels appropriately mannered, clever and seedy. From the start, we accept that every character will be a bit off.
Geoffrey Rush is wonderfully carnal and hungry as the Marquis, sashaying and swaying his body as he spouts out his scathing indictments of the so-called upstanding members of society. He makes full use of his robust voice, moving from ticklish prods to hot ecstasy. Rush manages to play the role over-the-top without going into camp, since he reveals small, subtle moments of genuine feeling (such as the moment we knew was coming, when the men in power take away his precious quills).
Kate Winslet continues to impress as his loyal supporter, choosing challenging roles in independent films rather than cashing in on the success of Titanic. She could have become a major Hollywood star, but instead opted for building a quality body of work in such films as Holy Smoke and Hideous Kinky. She and Rush attack their scenes with playful relish together.
There's also fine support from Joaquin Phoenix's (Gladiator) humanitarian priest whose noble principles are rocked by the decadent charms of the Marquis. Michael Caine takes what could have been a predictable arch-fiend and turns him into a complex, firm presence -- a steady rock who makes for quite a match against Geoffrey Rush's Marquis, though they share very few scenes.
Philip Kaufman brings bravura camera placement into the film, whether it be low angles of leering faces or tracking shots following horse drawn carriages intercut with passengers rocking back and forth as vampiric music rejoices on the soundtrack. The production design is a Merchant Ivory film gone to seed, with mossy green walls and costumes which are soiled, wrinkled, and dirty. Even the wigs have flecks of sweat and grime. The actors, feeding off of these props, give performances like grinning masks, scary and hilarious.
The plot is fairly traditional melodrama, complete with secret affairs and betrayals, bodice ripping and murder. It all culminates in an inevitable, explosive riot within the madhouse where the insane run wild, rattling their chains and ripping off their clothes. The sex and violence crowd will find their fair share of it here. While the mechanics are not unfamiliar, there's so much gusto thrown into the performances and attention to period detail that Quills plays out as enjoyably lavish, but not laughable.
This film never goes as far as Pier Paolo Pasolini's interpretation of de Sade's Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, happy to be entertaining if not challenging. Altogether, it makes for a fitting beginner's introduction to the Sadean school of thought (and a much better one than De Sade, an earlier film on the man's life).
Oddly, even though Geoffrey Rush spends the final half hour of the picture wandering around completely naked, this version of Marquis de Sade's life could almost play in Peoria. Almost, I say. While the Marquis spends much of the film talking about the bizarre sexual acts he committed during his life, Quills does find time to give us a little necrophilia. Gotta love that Marquis.
The new DVD release features a masterful transfer of the film, plus an interesting (if stuffy) commentary track by screenwriter Doug Wright. Three short documentary featurettes are also included -- they have their moments but aren't necessarily the best part of the disc.
Kate (Sade not shown).
Run time: 124 mins
In Theaters: Friday 15th December 2000
Box Office USA: $4.3M
Box Office Worldwide: $7.1M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Fresh: 89 Rotten: 30
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Philip Kaufman
Screenwriter: Doug Wright
Starring: Geoffrey Rush as The Marquis de Sade, Kate Winslet as Madeleine 'Maddy' LeClerc, Joaquin Phoenix as The Abbe du Coulmier, Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard, Billie Whitelaw as Madame LeClerc, Patrick Malahide as Delbené, Amelia Warner as Simone