I'm not sure what kind of person can honestly say that they enjoy Quills though it ranks among of the better films of 2002--one that certainly stimulates and challenges your intellectual faculties. And that is refreshing considering the numerous dumbed down films offered at the multi-plex.
Thrust immediately into the period of the French Revolution with graphic images of an execution, we know that the sensual and bloody will be combined in non-mainstream fare. Of course, we should already realize that since Doug Wright's play portrays the last days of the controversial Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), who has been imprisoned in the insane asylum of Charenton in 1801 for unspecified reasons.
From the film's context we can assume that Sade has violated sexual codes of decency, as publishers are clamoring for more of his pornographic writing. Sade's imprisonment doesn't prevent his works from publication because he has the laundry maid Madeleine (Kate Winslet) more than anxious to smuggle his writings outside the asylum. She even endures paying the price of allowing Sade to kiss her in exchange for pages.
Meanwhile, the head of the asylum Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) benignly allows Sade to carry on as his most famous and well-treated patient. Indeed Sade lives quite well in his locked cell with comfortable furniture and bed and plenty of writing materials, as this seems to be part of his therapy. Coulmier figures it's much better for Sade to write about his perversions as an escape valve than to let him loose on society. It turns out that he is correct, so if this status quo is maintained, we have no movie.
Thus, the Emperor Napolean is outraged that his prized prisoner is able to publish the pornographic Justine from his cell. He dispatches Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to the asylum to observe (translate the concept of "control" here) the goings on to assure that no more smutty publishings trickle out of Sade's cell. Royer-Collard harbors his own form of perversion, as he believes that torture chambers serve as the ultimate cure for all ills.
Each transgression of Sade results in more and more of his writing materials to disappear from his cell, resulting in Sade writing on his clothing with his own blood. The simple solution of stripping the cell of all furnishings and leaving Sade naked as a jay bird only results in tragedy, as Sade continues to spin his sexual tales and obsessively write on the walls with his fecal matter.
On the surface any story about the Marquis de Sade would be challenge for all but the quirky, but director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) has toned down the subject matter to make its uncomfortable subject tolerable and sympathetic. Essentially we have the theme of freedom and the right of artistic expression running through the film, as the repression of these results in cruelty and tragedy. We can infer that Sade is quite mad and simply must write his sexual fantasies out or he will explode.
From what we hear, these writings are not especially artistic in themselves but they certainly connect with other people. Madeleine devours every word, and her mother pleads with her to continue reading Sade's works aloud as she transcribes them—it's rather humorous to see her express disgust but immediately beg for the next sentence.
The screenplay also shows us a parallel with the upper classes and the sanctified as well, as Royer-Collard's young bride Simone (Amelia Warner) who was taken from the convent secretly obtains the scandalous Justin and glues the cover of Lady's Garden of Verse over it, so that she can read Sade while lying next to her detested husband. Perhaps this illustrates how such items as pornography, Survivor, and the Jerry Springer Show maintain such familiarity across social lines.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of Wright's screenplay parallels the common Shakespearean device of having a play within a play. As part of Sade's therapy, Coulmier allows him to direct prison plays. So Sade substitutes a lascivious play that mirrors the questionable marriage of the middle aged Dr. Royer-Collard with his virginal young bride with expected results. Simone and the inmates love it, Royer-Collard hates seeing his psyche exposed, and an embarrassed Coulmier is forced to begin removing liberties from the Marquis which leads to his own downfall.
As well crafted as the screenplay is designed, the film must rely on strong acting to work. Quills does so with enough performances to gain nominations in several categories. Kate Winslet has never been better (note that, Titanic fans) in her conspiratory role here, and as the desired object of both Sade and the repressed Coulmier. Winslet finds a way to express sensuality and strength simultaneously as she interacts with her two not so secret lovers.
Kudos to the three main male actors here as well. Geoffrey Rush is a treat to behold here as the outrageous Marquis, even finding ways to delight us and sympathize with him while he spews forth his continual double entendres and later play the telephone game to transcribe his latest malevolent romantic fantasy. After seeing so many films fail to communicate the creative spirit of an artist adequately, it's a pleasure to see the incomparable Rush personify the screenplay's ideas.
Michael Caine and Joaquin Phoenix both effectively carry out their roles expertly. Caine has long been recognized as one of our finer actors, and his portrayal as the sinister doctor works to perfection here. His rage is self-contained to balance his alter ego that mirrors the Marquis. Holding his own with Caine, Phoenix shows us a tortured character throughout the film, as he is torn between his true desires and what is required from his position—whether it relate to his famous prisoner or to his secret passion for Madeleine.
This period piece is also brought expertly to life with elegant sets and photographed with lenses that put us back to early 19th century France. It's "safer" for the Academy to award such controversial subject matter for production design, cinematography, and screenplay so I expect these areas to be deservedly recognized.
Although I'm not familiar with the writings of the Marquis de Sade nor do the film samples make me want to rush out to find them, the film remains compelling . The beauty of the film and the rich acting performances alone make it one of the better crafted films of the decade. Toss in a conceptual piece about the nature of creativity and questions of art, and Quills becomes a worthwhile experience. Though the actual material that the Marquis writes about isn't as compelling the film indicates, his determination to express himself no matter what the condition must be admired.
The film's setting may be France, but there's something quite American about it. Perhaps it's those obnoxious and stubborn ideas of freedom that we hold