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Rush Makes the Marquis in 'Quills'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2000


    'Quills' Geoffrey Rush is the devilish Marquis de Sade in "Quills."
(20th Century Fox)
Can a great character lead you all the way through an average movie, specifically one that holds its social commentary to the light with a certain grandiosity? Even one that takes an ill-advised narrative turn toward the end? In the case of "Quills," why, sure he can. After all, he's the Marquis de Sade! And Geoffrey Rush plays this rascal to the magnificent hilt.

It's not that the movie, directed by Philip Kaufman, is bad; far from it. It's just that Rush is too sinfully good for the drama he's in. As the dandyish, gone-to-seed philosopher and writer of sexually graphic novellas, he's not just keeping a step ahead of his outraged enemies, led by the puffy, bilious Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine). He's also trying to keep ahead of this movie's attempts to enshrine him as the great moralist of his time.

It's 1794 in Paris, and this time the marquis has gone too far. Napoleon Bonaparte himself has taken offense at his lurid works, which the marquis pens at a prodigious rate at the Charenton Asylum for the Insane.

The marquis delivers his manuscripts to the publishers via laundry hamper – delivered by one of his biggest fans, a sweet-natured laundress named Madeleine (Kate Winslet).

Clearly something's amiss at the asylum, which is under the benevolent supervision of the progressive-thinking Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). So Dr. Royer-Collard, a prestigious physician with rigid ideas about mental health, comes to the asylum determined to "cure" the marquis of his problem. The doctor's methods include frequent use of a "calming chair," which repeatedly dunks its strapped-in patient in a tank of freezing water.

In this satiric near-pantomime (which Doug Wright adapted from his play), the doctor happens to have some dark pleasures of his own, involving a young girl he has pulled from a convent to be his less-than-willing sex slave and wife. When the marquis learns about the doctor's little secret, he has the inmates put on a satiric play called "The Crimes of Love," just to infuriate his opponent.

Of course, this means war. And the poor, conscientious Abbe finds himself caught between the wills of two very strong men. Can the marquis outwit the doctor in this life-or-death political game? And just how far is he prepared to go, when they take away his parchment, quill and ink? If you have delicate sensibilities, you don't want to know.

The less said about the movie's fourth-quarter focus on the harried, delicate Coulmier, the better. After all, it's the marquis who rules. Whether he's pawing rapaciously at Madeleine while she reads his colorful writings or hissing sharp rebukes to his enemies ("Have you read it through?" he asks the doctor about his latest work. "Or did you turn straight away to the dog-eared pages?"), he's the king of this grimy hill, the cock of the walk.

"Quills" (R, 124 minutes) – Contains graphic sexual language, nudity, scatological material, sex scenes and violence.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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