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'Quills': The Sade Truth
About Freedom's Price

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2000


    'Quills' Geoffrey Rush is the devilish Marquis de Sade in "Quills."
(20th Century Fox)
"Quills" is profane, sacrilegious, pornographic, sadistic and Sade-istic, titillating and the most honorable movie of the year.

That's because it does something rare in an era of hot rhetoric and boiling rage: It argues its case fairly, acknowledging the implicit dangers in its position, and dramatizing the price that inevitably will be paid for its cherished goal of untrammeled personal expression.

The setting is the famous insane asylum at Charenton shortly after Napoleon had quelled the fires of Revolution and taken over toute la France. At that picturesque hell, the most famous inmate, he of the seedy stained satins, the insatiable lust for both flesh and adjectives, the periwig that most resembles a drowned weasel, is the Marquis de Sade, writing his nasty tales to keep his own screaming demons at bay, smuggling them out to keep his readers in a state of high priapic anticipation.

Many actors would have a good time with the twitchy, corrupt, cadaverous, imperious aristo quipster-whipster: One can imagine Malkovich or James Woods really going nuts; it's the part Jeremy Irons was born to play; Anthony Hopkins would have hit it so far it would never come down; or what about Jack Nicholson at his most depraved, his eyebrows arched like cathedral buttresses as he teases, "Mar-quis's home!" In Philip Kaufman's version of Doug Wright's play, the reed-thin, splendidly ruined Geoffrey Rush gives us the bad old guy who initially seems more grumpy than truly mad.< P>The actor's not bad, but I kept thinking he should be having more fun. His best thing is that he gives the dirty old man a lot of charm, primarily because he doesn't pretend to be anything other than a dirty old man. Self-knowledge is always an attractive attribute in a fella, whether his name is de Sade or Lecter.

By this time in his life, Marquis-Mark has it pretty soft. Although he is confined to the asylum, his wife pays his bills and keeps him in wine, he has the biggest sex-toy collection in Europe, he writes his scandalous tales of maids learning the joys of pain and perversity, and has them smuggled out by a proletarian laundress (Kate Winslet) who adores him. It's somebody's fantasy of the writer's life: He has the deep satisfaction of knowing he is being read by the masses and yet he doesn't have to pay his agent 10 percent!

This professional arrangement of his works because it is countenanced by the cleric running the place, the Abbe Coulmier (played by Joaquin Phoenix, who usually gets the ratty parts), who believes in tolerance and trust. But the emperor is not pleased. His impulse is to have de Sade shot and to hell with it, but a political adviser suggests a subtler destruction: Send in Alfie.

That is, Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard, a law-'n'-order type. Caine's flexibility as an actor is built around his large blue eyes, whose gleam he can control as if they have a brightness knob. He can dial them up and they're seductive sparklers, or he can dial them down, as he does here, and they're the dead ball bearings of authoritarianism, all set to facilitate the folding, spindling and chad-punching of the human spirit.

It doesn't take a genius to see where this one is going; even a movie critic can figure it out. The asylum: society. Phoenix's Abbe: liberalism. Caine's doctor: conservatism. Winslet and the rest of the inmates and staff: the people. De Sade: the spirit of anarchistic freedom.

That's exactly how it plays, with the brilliant addition of the following miracle ingredient: consequences.

The doctor (driven by the anger he feels when his young wife deserts him for a more sexually attractive partner) intensifies his war on the marquis, which in turn drives the marquis to find an outlet, not because he wants to, but because he must. Lacking quills (now confiscated), he sets up a human chain by which his words are transmitted from his cell to the cell next to the next, until finally they reach the willing Winslet, who writes down the words. That's almost a diagram of the writer's words moving through society.

But as each teller tells the tale, it is subtly transfigured into something lower, baser, meaner, until it finally reaches a fellow in the chain unable to cope with the sensations it arouses, and he responds by committing rape and murder. Another fellow, encouraged by the breakdown in order, uses the opportunity to indulge his pyromania and sets the place aflame; the result is bedlam, released by the erotic writings of a genius given exposure in society.

Thus the argument: Yes, say it all, publish it all, let the dark ravings of the lizard id have their play upon pages, even call it art. But be aware: There is a cost. Not everyone can handle it. Make your choice but make it fairly, not in a sentimental vacuum.

That courage aside – courageous, since most free-speech acolytes argue in that very vacuum – the movie suffers from overproduction. You can tell that Kaufman's visual imagination has been stimulated by the sumptuous grotesqueness of an early-19th-century asylum (he has a well-stimulatable imagination, after all, as the director of "Henry & June" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"), and he fills it with bosomy peasant maidens always spilling out of their blouses, gibbering maniacs whose drool gleams like gossamer fairy spume on their chins, freaks, geeks, human baboons and an unusual selection of cast eyes, carbuncles, scars and cellulite.

And it fudges facts, to its own philosophical advantage. Most seriously, it ascribes de Sade's tendencies to his exposure to political violence in the Revolution, inventing (among other contributions to our new century) a guillotine-cam, which allows us the blade's view as it descends toward a particularly pale, delicate aristocrat's neck.

This is important philosophically to the movie; it argues that man can be corrupted by politics. But de Sade's life suggests the opposite: His first depredation occurred in 1768; he was sentenced to prison in 1769 and sentenced to death in 1772 – all years before the Revolution. If anything, he was one of those fellows who were just born that way; he learned it no place. That's a heavy idea, because it suggests that some things just can't be fixed and that freedom will never be free; it'll always cost something.

"Quills" (126 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, Avalon and Shirlington) is rated R for extreme violence and sexuality as well as cruelty and perversity and sadism.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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