Rated R - Running Time: 2:03 - Released 12/15/00

Most people are familiar with the term "sadist" as meaning someone who enjoys inflicting pain, especially for the purpose of erotic pleasure. Philip Kaufman's film Quills tells the story of the 18th-century French founder of "sadism" (at least the one who made it a popular indoor sport), the Marquis de Sade. Although not historically perfect, Quills is a sensitive and moving account of the end of the marquis's life (during and after the French Revolution, when people were being beheaded for "sexual depravity") and the effect he had on sexual culture that lasts, and indeed flourishes, to this day. An impressive debut for writer Doug Wright (based on his play), it stars Geoffrey Rush in another Oscar-nominated performance that breathes life into this controversial historical character, showing us a man who, during a period of brutal, bloodthirsty government, found no succor in God nor his country — only in his writing. Rush's Sade is complex and sympathetic, hardly the vicious deviant one would imagine as "the original sadist." But beyond his performance is the talented cast that surrounds him, including Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Caine, and the authenic beauty (if you can call it that) of the period brought to the screen by Kaufman's expert hand.

The film starts with the publication of one of Sade's most famous and controversial novels, Justine. Although he has been imprisoned in the Charenton Asylum for the Insane and forbidden to publish any more of his scandalous literature, the marquis is aided by a chambermaid named Madeline (Winslet), who collects his pages with the laundry and smuggles them out to the publisher. Upon publication of the sexy novel, which is a runaway bestseller, the marquis is punished by the removal of all his writing supplies — paper, ink, and quills — by Abbe Coulmier (Phoenix), the friendly and well-meaning clergyman in charge of the asylum. However, the novel also attracts the attention of none other than Emperor Napoleon, who sends the eminent Dr. Royer-Collard (Caine) to help "cure" the marquis of his unsavory behavior. Royer-Collard is one of those 18th-century doctors who cures psychotic patients with the use of torture, like repeatedly dipping them, upside down, in a vat of water until they promise not to be psychotic any more.

Soon after the good doctor arrives, he decides to take a wife, the lovely and innocent Simone (Amelia Warner), who happens to be a voracious reader. Simone is an orphan and, of course, a virgin, reared in a convent, whose innocence in the ways of sex is brutally brought to an end by her marriage to Dr. Royer-Collard. Her inexperience in the bedroom in no way dampens her desire to read, however, and she soon obtains a copy of Justine. Desiring the kind of sexual adventurism she finds in the book, she develops an eye for the young architect the doctor has hired to restore the crumbling mansion he has bought. Meanwhile, the marquis continues to find ways to write (including a randy play about Dr. Royer-Collard and his bride), and is continually aided and abbetted by Madeline and several other inmates.

Rush's performance is impeccable; he paints the Marquis de Sade as the frail human he must have been, whose passion for writing exceeds even his bestial desires. Wright's text is at once disturbing, humorous, and ironic, making a clear point about the difference between one kind of sadism and another. Winslet is soft and innocent as Madeline, and yet a woman not afraid to put herself in danger for what she wants. Although Madeline is not physically attracted to the aging writer (in fact, she engages in a naive flirtation with the Abbe, and another with a young man on the outside), she cannot deny the marquis's talent for the written word, nor her own passion for it. Caine is the kind of sinister yet all too real villain one sees throughout history, a dangerous man driven by greed and his lust for power, who pretends to be a humble servant of God. Lastly, Phoenix is adequate but not great as Coulmier; while convincing enough at times, his speech and manner occasionally seem stilted and phony. Any inadequacies in his performance cannot begin to take away, however, for the eminently beautiful quality of this film. ****½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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