QUILLS (2000) 

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Geoffrey Rush
Kate Winslet
Joaquin Phoenix
Michael Caine
Billie Whitelaw
Patrick Malahide
Amelia Warner
Jane Menelaus
Stephen Moyer
Tony Pritchard
Stephen Marcus

Philip Kaufman



The Novel

Time: 123 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: History/Drama

Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Rush), Costume Design and Art Direction.

I was really looking forward to seeing this movie. QUILLS is the type of movie I generally adore. It has great actors in scene-chewing roles, has what I thought would be an interesting story and is high on the naughtiness factor. Imagine my disappointment when I found myself somewhat bored with all the goings on. This is supposed to be an historical piece about the end of the Marquis de Sade's life, but I have no idea how true it actually is. I suppose he really was incarcerated, but the rest of it is strictly fiction...and not very interesting at that. It goes without saying that watching a film about a man unable to leave his room would produce some plot challenges. The film has its witty and clever moments, but they are few and far between, leaving all lightness behind.

However, other films, like MURDER IN THE FIRST, managed to keep the story moving and the characters engaging, even though most of it took place in a prison cell. This film just doesn't have enough of a story to move the film along. Once the premise is established, the middle of the film, where the Marquis is denied quill and ink, meanders along towards its inevitable conclusion. What happens was no surprise...at least to me. Though all the actors are amazing, the parts they were given to play were fairly ordinary and gave them nothing new to showcase their prodigious talents. Rush was intelligent and wicked, Phoenix was conflicted and pious, Winslet was trusting and comely, and Caine was mean-spirited and evil. The only one to show any change in character was Phoenix who sort of ends up back where he started, only with a vastly different point of view. The film may have had something serious to say about freedom of expression, if it took its lead seriously, as a man with ideas far outside the mainstream who, though loathed by a certain sector of society, is making a contribution to mankind.

"Conversation, like certain portions of the anatomy, always runs more smoothly when lubricated."

Here he's nothing but a dirty old loony, whose fantasies make other people nervous, so he must be silenced. Maybe it's because he wasn't respected in his time, or even in this day in age, but I felt his character was made too crazy to be believed to be a threat and not worth the time we were spending. If he was clever as well as sexual, that would be something, but the stories being smuggled out were more like dime store trash than works of art. Plus, words are all we get. If you're thinking this is going to be an erotic and sexually explicit film, think again. Much like EYES WIDE SHUT, this film promises wanton sex and depravity, but ultimately fails to deliver. There's nudity, but not of the type you really want to see. As the film opens, we are introduced to the Marquis and his pen. He treats his incarceration as a vacation without end with his stories as the only way he can visit the real world. His works gain him notoriety.

Smuggled out of the asylum by Madelaine (Winslet), an innocent-minded laundress, they are published and sold all over France, unbeknownst to those in charge. The king deems the novels indecent and an embarrassment to his reign. To stop the madness, he sends Dr. Royer-Collard (Caine), a well-renowned psychologist, who believes in using pain to produce sanity, to Charenton to get the Marquis under control. The reverand currently in charge, Abbe de Coulmier (Phoenix), believes in letting his wards creatively express themselves in order to recover from their mental challenges. He tries to convince Royer-Collard that he's got the situation with the Marquis in hand, but when the lewd and outrageous tales continue to find their way to the outside world, Abbe is forced to make the Marquis' life much more difficult. Madelaine is caught in the middle, torn between her silent love for Abbe and her dark desire to read the Marquis' wicked tales. The stories show her a world of passion and love she will never get the chance to experience herself.

De Sade's insolence knows no bounds and he finally pushes Royer-Collard too far by bringing his marriage to ruins. So, he is stripped of not only all of his belongings, but his ability to create. This pushes De Sade over the edge, truly making him insane. Being able to write down his stories, to express his darkest desires, is the only thing connecting him to the real world. Abbe is unwilling to sacrifice his post and the mental health of the other patients to feed the nasty whims of one man. He believes he is doing the right thing, but in the end it only brings about the end of his life as he knows it and the downfall of the only person he ever truly loved. They try to make you believe that both men love Madelaine, but she's really nothing but a pawn in their game of power. Who does she need more? She can't escape the pull of either, as both satisfy an inner yearning she can't deny. They end up destroying her, wanting only a beautiful thing to possess. The film is mainly about the thin line between virtue and vice and how little it takes to push a person from one side to the other. It may sound very poetic and dramatic, and at certain points it is, but I expected something more than a pedantic vision about morality and the potential for evil in all men. Being a woman, I'm well aware of that fact.

One thing I will say for the film is Kaufman does truly bring you kicking and screaming into the life of the insane. The fact that we are trapped on the grounds of Charenton helps to create a desire to escape, to experience the world outside the minds of the insane. Spending time here is not exactly a day in the park and you can't help but feel sorry for all who live there. Phoenix is wonderful as Abbe, a man trying to do his best in the world, living for God amongst the godless. He has truly become the actor to watch of his generation. One look in his eyes will break your heart. Winslet is good, but she could play this part in her sleep and I'm kind of tired watching her play doomed females. In this case, she's supposed to be the character most of us relate to, the generally good person drawn in by the wicked tales. Does it make us bad if we enjoy hearing them? Let's just say, it doesn't make her life better. Rush is creepy, intelligent and totally deranged. The fact that he has no problem with his own nudity is a bit disturbing as well. Granted, women always complain about fair play onscreen, but there are some bottoms and naughty bits you don't really want to see. Caine is amazingly evil as the self-righteous doctor who punishes others for his own unhappiness. He's the one character who survives unscathed and maybe that's why I was unhappy with how the film ends.

The production design, cinematography and direction are wonderful, perfectly conveying this unhappy time and place. The pace of the film is a little slow, taking its time to build, which isn't always bad, just in this case it didn't build to anything new. Everything about QUILLS is first-rate except the story, which doesn't do its main character justice. One would hope a film about the Marquis de Sade would be more intriguing. I can't see how anyone would think QUILLS was the best film of the year, but to each his own. If you like the actors and are looking for something a bit different from the normal fare, definitely check this one out. Just don't expect your world to be changed because of it.

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