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Quills
2000 - R - 124 Mins.
Director: Philip Kaufman
Producer: Julia Chasman, Nick Wechsler, Peter Kaufman
Written By: Julia Chasman, Nick Wechsler, Peter Kaufman
Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, Michael Jenn
Review by: David Trier
   
It can be very risky to try to make a modern-day point with a period/costume film. We all saw, despite ourselves, how Elizabethan England was just a silly medium upon which to discuss feminism in Shakespeare in Love. But today we live in a world, an America anyway, of Joe Liebermans and Tipper Gores where our rights to be crude, sexually explicit, and altogether naughty are constantly in question. So as I nestled into my free screening seat, I found this fictional story about the Marquis de Sade to ring true and to ring powerfully.

The story is set in one of the most miserable locations and time periods of human history, a mental institution in revolutionary France. Having murdered some people in ways barely mentioned, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), in exchange for good behavior, is cooped up in a ward with nothing to do but write. Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a laundress, has been sneaking his manuscripts out of the hospital to be published. Their racey sexual and violent content become all the rage in an already deviant and destructive society. When Napoloeon (Ron Cook) hears of it, he orders the Marquis' execution, but his advisors point out that curing the madman would make him a hero at a time when he was much in need of approval. Enter Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), an old-fashioned doctor, skilled in the use of torture machines for mental rehabilitation. But the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), prefers to run the institution using rehabilitation through reward, theater, and art. It's reasonably successful, with the exception of the clever nastiness that comes from the Marquis' writing. When he discovers that the writings have been published and the ward is in danger of being shut down or taken over by Collard, Coulmier pleads with de Sade to stop writing. Of course, he does not and Coulmier is forced to take away all of de Sade's quills and ink. Will this stop him? To thicken the plot, there are two expertly drawn subplots. Coulmier, the only truly decent and loving character, is torn between his duties toward God and his romantic and erotic instincts toward Madeleine. Madeleine must also struggle with her affections for the Abbe and her dark attraction to the deplorable Marquis. Dr. Collard, an aristocratic, pompous aging man has claimed a teenage bride (Amelia Warner) from the nunnery. To make up for raping her nightly and keeping her locked in his mansion, he allows her all the riches she desires. Mischief ensues. The film climaxes and ends with a few clever twists and turns worth not mentioning here.

The biggest advantage this movie has over most is a clear cooperation between a competent director (Philip Kaufman) and a brilliant cast. Geoffrey Rush has the distinction of being on my short list of infallibles, actors who are incapable of mediocrity. His de Sade is both nauseating and appealing, somewhere between Hannibal Lecter and the Scarlet Pimpernel. He offers his co-stars full attention in their presence and doesn't make cheesey attempts to steal the show - he just does it. Kate Winslet makes up for that gratingly irritating Titanic character by gracing us with a multi-layered, lovable, compelling woman with a sensual dark side... and perky breasts. Seriously though, she is really very good in this. Michael Caine delivers a worthy performance, genuine in the shadow of a truly twisted character. His young bride is played well by beautiful newcomer, Amelia Warner. She has a presence about her that's very reminiscent of Natalie Portman in The Professional. And last, but most, Joaquin Phoenix nails another mind-boggling performance. His screen presence and his commitment to each moment of each scene is just stunning. Without a doubt he is one of the most talented young actors of our time and if he doesn't get the Oscar for carrying Gladiator then he deserves some sort of honor for this film. Coulmier is the only character we feel good about rooting for. We enjoy rooting for the Marquis, but we don't feel good about it if you know what I mean. Kaufman directs this film with an even pace and a keen eye for the grotesque. He makes no more apologies for the gore and sexuality of Quills than the Marquis de Sade himself would. The film has an R rating which is impressive in this day and age considering its content. And when I think back to Kaufman's remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers which boasted a PG rating despite its many slimy pods, imploded dead bodies and nudity, I wonder how we got to the stage where a comedy like Trey Parker's Orgazmo could get NC-17. But I digress. The film is based on a play of the same name and the screenplay is adapted by the playwright, Doug Wright. That helps. The music by Stephen Warbeck, who just finished the beautiful score to Billy Elliot, combines classic orchestration with slightly modern percussion to make for the film's creepy yet upbeat vibe.

The one thing that holds this movie back at times is its confusion over whether to be a comedy or simply a tale of terror and suspense. The two have often shared the screen, but like miso soup, there needs to be frequent stirring to maintain consistency. Most of the humor comes from Rush's performance and the film sort of gives up on the comedic angle for the last half hour of the film. But despite this, the movie starts out pretty entertaining and only seems to get better and better. It never gets slow and it never really loses focus of its point. When we deny ourselves of our dirty instincts, when we prohibit what will always be indulged regardless, we only encourage obsession and the deification of that very same thing. The more de Sade is prohibited from writing, the more he must write and the more sultry it must be. When we give the powers that be the ability to determine what we can and cannot entertain ourselves with, the entertainment becomes a whole new monster. And, as pointed out by the corruption of Collard, the elitists who claim to be the judges of morality and cleanliness, are the nastiest of them all. I imagined the movie ending about two or three times before it actually did. I liked the ending, but it's debatable if it's the best of a number of choices. The Marquis de Sade is depicted as being a much more decent man than he probably was. Here he is more mischevious than he is evil, but keep in mind that this is a fictional story in its entirety. And like many period films, we have to accept subtle British accents for what would in this case be old French.

People upset by blatant disregard for good taste, full-frontal nudity, cutting out someone's tongue, decapitation, necrophilia and the like probably will be blinded from this film's ingenuity. I'm not one of those people. People who laugh loudly and like to yell "Woah!" when something cool happens, will enjoy Quills tremendously. Yeah, I'm one of those people.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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