Director Philip Kaufman establishes the nebulously erotic atmosphere of "Quills," a fictional film about the Marquis de Sade, with an opening scene in which a pretty aristocrat, shown on screen in some kind of ecstasy, is described by Sade (in a voice-over) as a woman with a sexual appetite for torture.
His voice slithers as he relates how she one day "found herself in the arms of a man whose skill in pain exceeded even her own" as the camera focuses on two giant, dirty hands coarsely roaming her neck and shoulders while she shivers in fear. The camera pulls back to reveal that the woman is standing before the gallows, about to become the eighth or ninth severed head to roll into a basket below as a crowd of rowdy peasants cheers on. (This is 18th Century France, after all.)
The Marquis' narration drips (like blood from the blade of the gallows) with a kind of odious sensuality and pricks at the viewer's darker side with a twisted sense of humor that carries throughout this engrossing, seductive, and at times unsavory film.
Geoffrey Rush brings a winking, wicked charm to his role as the silver-tongued and asylum-incarcerated Sade, who has been sneaking his pornographic prose out of his well-appointed sanatorium cell and to his publisher by way of a virginal but eagerly hedonic laundress named Madeleine (Kate Winslet).
A student of the Marquis in more ways than one, Madeleine regularly visits Sade's chamber for reading lessons (his dirty stories, of course) and to experiment with her ability to beguile men.
The Marquis' other regular visitor is the young priest (Joaquin Phoenix) who operates the asylum and seems to subconsciously take a perverse, God-complex pleasure in tending to its twisted inmates. Forever at odds, Sade takes great pleasure in taunting this Abbe with his lascivious debauchery, while the Abbe tries in earnest to rehabilitate the Marquis and to protect Madeleine from him.
Rush defines his character in these scenes, manipulating and influencing the irresolute rector, played by Phoenix with a subtly volatile mixture of piety, distress and veiled lust. But that's just the beginning of the battle of wills between inmate and jailers, which turns into something more sinister with the arrival of a doctor (Michael Caine), appointed by Napoleon to take over the asylum and bring the Marquis under control.
A physician who considers torture a viable form of social therapy for twisted souls like Sade's, he's also something of a hypocrite who forces himself on his 15-year-old bride nightly. Determined to curb the Marquis' writing, the doctor orders his cell stripped of its canopy bed, books, desk, parchment, quills and other luxuries (provided through the influence of Sade's wife). In response Sade used wine to write on his bed sheets and asks Madeleine to transcribe. Subsequently left nothing but his powdered wig and the clothes on his back, he writes again -- upon his frilly suit using his own blood.
Such scenes are a cinematic playground for Kaufman and Rush as they collaborate to create a succulent but disturbing portrait of history's most notorious literary pornographer.
Rush prances around the asylum in his bloody-cursive ensemble after escaping his cell, reveling in his character's triumphant depravity. His wickedly charming, darkly humorous, yet utterly amoral performance is one of precision tuning since Sade is depicted as something of a censorship martyr in spite of being a convicted rapist, among other things.
Kaufman conspicuously skirts addressing the crimes that landed Sade in this prison asylum in the first place. He doesn't present the man as any kind of hero, but Sade's detractors are played mostly as reactionary prudes. Admittedly, at the time most of them would have been just that, but the picture leaves little middle ground for the audience to comfortably assume.
However, like the Marquis De Sade himself, "Quills" is voraciously tantalizing. The film is an exquisitely handsome period piece -- even the filth of the foreboding asylum has a certain je ne sais quoi. Every one of the performances is filled with subtle and overt psychosexual nuances that come into play as the priest, the doctor, Madeleine, the inmates and even the doctor's caged young wife are affected by Sade's gravitational influence -- eventually leading to grotesquely murderous results that devastate several lives.
Best of all, the dialogue is absolutely delicious. The Marquis forever speaks in lascivious prose and can shrewdly turn any conversation to his advantage. But even the Abbe gets great lines, at one point angrily declaring to his charge, "You're not the antichrist! You're nothing but a malcontent who knows how to spell!" (This may be the most truthful thing said about Sade in the course of the film. As a writer, he was far more audacious than talented.)
"Quills" falters in some significant ways. Most notably it neglects its female characters, declining to explore the source of Madeleine's obsession with the Marquis De Sade and failing to depict in the doctor's child-wife (beautiful, sensual and talented newcomer Amelia Warner) any psychological consequences of being forced to submit to a cruel man 50 years her senior night after night.
But while it does have its shortcomings and does romanticize Sade, "Quills" is every bit as vivid, torrid and zestful as anything the Marquis himself ever put to paper, and far more mesmerizing, skillful and intellectual.
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: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 75%
Fresh: 89 Rotten: 30
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Philip Kaufman
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