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  Philip Kaufman  
  Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine  
Release Date:
  July 7, 2000  
Reviewed by:
  The Priestess  

Quills is a fictitious adaptation of the life of the Marquis de Sade, specifically the years he spent in the Charendon Asylum. Infamous for his sexually and violently explicit writings, the Marquis has been quoted as saying, "In order to know virtue, we must first acquaint ourselves with vice." (In case you don't know, the term sadist originates from his name.) Being a sucker for period costumes and hedonism, I could hardly wait for Quills to hit the shelves at my local video store! My best friend and I had been talking about it for months. As soon as I'd seen it, I emailed to ask her how she liked it, and she reported that she had to turn it off because she found it too disturbing. This from the kinkiest woman I know?! I, on the other hand, had to watch it three times to figure out how I feel about it. The final verdict: I need to see it again.

The Marquis de Sade is played by Geoffrey Rush, who won an Oscar for his lead role in Shine. He has also starred in other period pieces, including Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth, the latter of which is vastly superior to the former even if it is not historically accurate by a long shot. Rush as the Marquis is as raunchy and debauched as Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and as intensely seductive as John Malcovich in Dangerous Liaisons. (Interestingly, Rush's wife, Jane Menelaus, plays the small part of the Marquis' estranged wife.) Kate Winslet, best known for baring her breasts in Titanic, plays Madeleine, the humble, hard-working laundress at the asylum. True to form, her breasts make another appearance in Quills, but their magnificence is eclipsed by Winslet's incredibly honest performance. Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator), the artist formerly known as Leaf, portrays Abbe Coulmier, the priest who runs the asylum. His character is perhaps the most intriguing because he struggles most to make sense of sin. The chemistry between Rush and Phoenix is so powerful that I can honestly say it was the first time I ever wanted to watch two men fuck. And Michael Caine (Hannah and Her Sisters and Cider House Rules) plays the utterly evil and self-righteous Dr. Royer-Collard, whom Napoleon himself has sent to the asylum to cure the Marquis of his writing habit and stop him from publishing his violent and erotic works. The casting director deserves a standing ovation for this line-up, not to mention the incredibly convincing supporting cast of lunatics in the asylum!

Surprisingly, there is more to Quills than sex. In fact, the first time I saw it, I complained that it wasn't kinky enough. I expect a film about the Marquis de Sade to be so completely twisted that even I can't handle it. What turned my friend off was a rape scene. Certainly, it disturbed me too, but you can see a more disturbing rape scene in Saturday Night Fever, in my opinion. I expect rape in a film about the Marquis. Hell, I expect worse, but that really isn't the meaning of the film. Sure, Quills will shock Mom, but then, so did Fargo! This is not a film for the faint of heart, but it's certainly not as perverse as the subject matter would have allowed. Though it did have me thinking at one point that necrophilia isn't all badů.

The Marquis de Sade lived in France at about the same time as poet William Blake lived in England, and both men share a major theme in their writings: the tyranny of virtue. Both sought to liberate women from the hypocrisies of the church and the social constraints of virginity and piety. However, unlike Blake, the Marquis did not obscure his meaning in mythology and symbolism. Instead, he wrote honestly and explicitly. Like the Marquis' writing, this film touches on all the subjects we most hate to love: sin, madness, rape, and murder. It also deals with freedom of speech and expression and how silencing your deepest, darkest thoughts can lead to insanity and despair. The main theme of Quills is the tension between the classic dichotomy of good and evil. It is about how the wicked can sometimes be saintly, while seemingly decent people can be truly sinister, and how this inner struggle between virtue and vice goes on in each of us. It is about how people who aren't getting any can be really vicious and how those who are getting laid on a regular basis have a bliss the rest of us envy. All in all, the film has many layers of meaning. Watching it three times was well worth it. Each time, I saw something I'd never noticed before. The film is gorgeous, the soundtrack is haunting, and the writing is superb. I wrote down an entire page of brilliant one-liners, many of which turned out to be the real Marquis' own words.

I won't lie to you. Quills is not perfect. It leaves many reasonable questions unanswered, like why anyone in her right mind (a concept open to interpretation in this case) would hang out with a rapist or why people in France would speak in the Queen's English. And the ending was a bit disappointing, but I suppose I shouldn't have hoped for a happy ending in this case. This is definitely not the film to watch if you're already depressed and looking for an escape from the injustices of life. In that case, get drunk and watch Dude, Where's my Car?

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