'Quills' sheds light on Marquis de Sade

Friday, December 15, 2000

Try as it might, "Quills" cannot make the Marquis de Sade into a cuddly stuffed animal.

It has smart things to say about free speech and hypocrisy, but "Quills" misrepresents de Sade. His shocking stories about limb-ripping sex are depicted as playful, anti-government metaphors that threatened the ruling class but delighted workers, who understood the beauty in the grotesque things de Sade wrote. That's a valid interpretation, but you need only read a little de Sade to know that he was also a twisted perv.

"Quills'" main argument is that it's not ideas that are dangerous, but the troubled society into which they are introduced. The macabre, witty "Quills" demonstrates that speech, even speech we don't like or approve of, must be protected because it kick-starts discussion on important issues. With his work under fire from government and religion, the movie's de Sade asks, "Are your convictions so fragile that they cannot withstand the opposition of mine?"

The central conceit is that de Sade ("Shine's" Geoffrey Rush) is locked in an asylum to silence him but that he finds increasingly grotesque ways to be heard. When they take his ink, he uses wine. When they take the wine, he uses his own blood to express the passionate ideas that flow out of him. It's a solid concept, even if it's historically inaccurate, and "Quills" also hints at why recent movies and books have cranked up the Shock-o-Meter. Says Kate Winslet, as a maid who helps de Sade, "With all I've seen in life, it takes a lot to hold my interest."

The movie has no problem holding our interest, but it never engages our sympathies. De Sade's tragedy is sidelined as "Quills" tries to turn his priest/jailer (Joaquin Phoenix) into its protagonist, a man of the cloth torn between his duty to silence de Sade and his belief that de Sade can heal himself.

It's the central dilemma of the movie, but it comes too late and the character of the priest is too indistinct to interest us. Especially when there's a guy in the next room whose stories make Penthouse Forum look like "Goodnight Moon."

"Quills" was made with intelligence and care, but what's missing is a full picture of de Sade, a picture that says we desperately need people who push boundaries but acknowledges that those people can be dangerous and irresponsible.