Thursday, December 28, 2000
The Marquis de Sade was the Eminem of post-Revolutionary France.
He had some talent, but his greatest gift was offending people, and he delighted in it. This adaptation of Doug Wright's play similarly revels in its ability to shock its audience, but, as with Sade himself, there's a lot more going on beneath the surface.
The film is set during the last few years of Sade's life, when he is imprisoned in Charenton Asylum, an unusually progressive institution run by the benevolent Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). The Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) lives a fairly luxurious life in these surroundings, with a large suite stocked with books, artwork and writing materials. Producing his outrageous erotic novels is a form of therapy, a way to express his rage at a world which denies its true, depraved nature.
He does more than just write, however. With the help of a laundress, Madeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet), Sade actually sneaks his work out of the asylum and gets it published, much to the horror of the nation's moral guardians. Napoleon sends the cruel Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to be an "adviser" at Charenton, with the express purpose of stopping Sade. His arrival sets in motion a chain of events that ends in tragedy for virtually everyone involved.
"Quills" is based on a play, so it's only natural that its greatest strengths would be the two elements that are strongest in good theater: writing and acting. As befits the subject matter, Wright's script is often funny and horrifying at the same time, and there are a number of memorable (and disturbing) scenes. There are plenty of liberties taken with historical fact, but they don't detract from the story's core honesty.
Wright is clearly conflicted about his main character, which makes the Marquis all the more interesting ï¿½ he is an artist, madman, tragic hero, monster and genius, all in one. Very few actors could handle such a complicated role ï¿½ but this is Geoffrey Rush. The man is absolutely fearless, which is exactly what he needs to be if he's going to play someone of such extremes. He is alternately charming and repulsive, refusing to shy away from Sade's less savory personality traits.
Winslet and Phoenix portray likable, if naive, characters who find themselves admiring Sade and falling under his influence, at great personal price. Madeleine relishes the Marquis' perverse writings but never seems to understand the true darkness that inspires them, while Coulmier refuses to give up on his belief in Sade's innate decency, even when faced with evidence to the contrary. The three characters end up in a weird sort of love triangle, and it's fascinating to watch them play off each other.
The only actor who really seems miscast is Caine. There's an earthiness to Caine's persona that never quite fits his character's icy detachment. Given the way he's written, Royer-Collard should be an even scarier figure than Sade, but Caine seems stiff and uncomfortable in the role.
Director Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff") does an impressive job of taking "Quills" beyond its stage roots, opening up the action and keeping things moving. The film deals thoughtfully with issues of censorship and hypocrisy, raising more questions than it answers, as any good "message" movie should. Although they clearly fall on the side of free expression, Wright and Kaufman acknowledge that someone like Sade can't simply be dismissed as an innocent victim of political oppression.
"Quills" is riveting right up until the last few minutes when it suddenly and inexplicably falls apart. The ending, which is apparently meant to be powerful and ironic, seems tacked on for the sole purpose of making sure everybody gets the points that were made with much greater finesse earlier. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it is a disappointing way to wrap up what is otherwise a compelling look at one of history's great provocateurs.