Although Philip Kaufman’s Quills takes significant liberties with its retelling of the last
year of the Marquis de Sade’s life, one cannot deny the glee with which
Geoffrey Rush played the notorious libertine. Adapted by Doug Wright from his own play and set in the age immediately following France’s Reign of Terror, we meet De Sade as he spends his days imprisoned in the
Charenton Asylum (thanks to the criminal immorality of his writings). Confined to
his room but still as steeped in debauchery as ever, he continues to publish
his depraved novels and plays with the help of Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a
virginal chambermaid who is intrigued by the Marquis’s naughtiness. At the same
time that De Sade works feverishly to send more tawdry tales to the masses,
he is watched over by the benevolent young monk who runs Charenton, the Abbé du
Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), whose goodwill is increasingly tested by the rebellious Marquis.
As much as the film claims to be centered on the pleasures of the flesh, it is equally - if not more so - focused on the desires of the heart, as well as on faith, politics, censorship, treatment (or lack thereof) for mental illnesses and, perhaps most importantly, the dangers of a life lived in contradiction. The conservative authority figure who assists Coulmier, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), considers De Sade his enemy but he is in fact a sadist himself, using “corrective” methods of torture to deal with problems faced by Charenton’s inmates; the
Coulmier is a devoted servant of God, but over the course of the narrative he grows more and more attracted to Madeleine, who is also deeply in love with him.
With Madeleine, Kate Winslet creates an instantly sympathetic heroine, while
Joaquin Phoenix does a fantastic job at portraying a man of the cloth whose complicated relationship to religion is intermingled with sexual repression. Michael Caine also does his typically high quality of work as cold-hearted Royer-Collard, aided ably by Amelia Warner as his teenage bride, Simone. The film unquestionably belongs to Geoffrey Rush, however, who tears into the role of the Marquis de Sade with gusto. He is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, and absolutely deserving of the Best Actor Academy Award nomination that he received for the performance. (Nominations also went to the costume design by Jacqueline West and the art direction/set decoration by Martin Childs and Jill Quertier.) The ending of Quills is flawed - I have issues with films that require
female characters to come to harm in order for male characters to experience growth - and the historical inaccuracies in the third act are jarring to say the least, but there is no doubt that Kaufman’s film is a beautifully-acted tragicomedy with style to burn.