No. 41: “Quills” (2000)

“Are your convictions so fragile they cannot stand in opposition to mine? Is your god so flimsy, so weak? For shame.”
~~Marquis de Sade

In 1987, a photographer named Andres Serrano dropped a plastic crucifix in a jar of his urine and snapped a photo. The result, “Piss Christ,” snared accolades and secured grant funding for Serrano. That photo also ignited a firestorm of dismay, disgust and outright hatred, prompting some detractors to send death threats. Fifteen years later, he fired back a retort aimed at everyone who damned him a heretic: “I like to believe that rather than destroy icons, I make new ones.”

The Marquis de Sade likely had a giggle at that, since nobody exalted artistic hubris quite like he did. Such is the man Geoffrey Rush presents in “Quills,” a literate, sexy and unapologetically twisted adaptation of Doug Wright’s award-winning play. Rush’s devilish Marquis is many things in his own mind: a sexual dynamo, a proponent of free speech, a consummate artist. In the minds of his keepers at Charenton asylum, the Marquis is something else entirely: a head case in need of experimental treatments to right the wickedness of his mind. Rush turns in a dynamic and tricky performance that makes us believe the Marquis is both. The image of the writer huddled in the corner of his empty room, robbed of his clothes and quill pen, is haunting. Is the Marquis a martyr for his cause or a hack with delusions of grandeur? Maybe his true character can’t be painted in black and white.

Most of the people in Charenton, from the patients to the chambermaids and physicians, make their homes in the gray areas; that’s why “Quills” sidesteps preachiness and depravity. Closest to the Marquis is Madeline (an alluring, achingly naïve Kate Winslet), a laundress who hides his work in linens and smuggles the pages to a horseman (Tom Ward) and the printer. Her innocence makes her the perfect muse for the Marquis, who awards her starring roles in his work. His response to her beauty is less than chaste, prompting the priceless line “You’ve already stolen my heart … as well as another more prominent organ south of the Equator.” Madeline also catches the eye of Charenton’s overseer, the Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, the unchallenged master of Crushing Inner Conflict), who lets the Marquis produce plays but actually thinks little of his prose (he calls him “a malcontent who knows how to spell”). Napoleon (Ron Cook) orders the Marquis’ execution, but an advisor persuades the ruler to send Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a man with … questional techniques, to fix this reprobate.

Once Caine and Rush stand eye to eye, “Quills” turns into an exhilarating battle of wills. Though Dr. Royer-Collard poses as a righteous man, he gets a gleam in his eye when he attempts to torture the demons from the Marquis’ mind. The good doctor’s eyes give away the delight that his mouth won’t let slip. And the more the Marquis, equally crude and poignant, taunts him, the more the truth comes out. Dr. Royer-Collard isn’t better than the Marquis; he’s just better at hiding his fetishes. Rush plays up his character’s shrewdness to tremendous effect (it takes a sadomasochist to know one). Caine, in the meantime, does a terrific job of concealing all emotions, which makes him even more monstrous. There’s no villain so scary as the one who wields a Bible like an executioner’s handbook. Winslet and Phoenix’s heart-tugging would-be lovers, barely capable of repressing their desire for each other, discover the doctor’s intentions too late.

The sets, costumes and cinematography of Philip Kaufman’s “Quills” only serve to reinforce the immense power of the performances. Somehow art director Martin Childs and set designer Jill Quertier understand the soul of Wright’s play and the film; they understand the soul of Rush’s character, walled up in this festering madhouse, and they manifest his frustrations in colorless soiled dresses and muted, dank castle walls. Every inch of Charenton resembles a medieval torture chamber, notably the Marquis’ final holding pen. Though it may be dreary, he decorates it in such a way his drive to speak his truth can’t be ignored, and surely you won’t forget it.

12 Responses

  1. You can always count on you to pick an off kilter forgotten gem. Very good movie, damn Phoenix was EXCELLENT here (way better than the one note role they gave him in Gladiator) and Winslet, Rush both lovely. It is a depressing piece, but it is done so well. Glad you’re a fan.

  2. Nice review. I only know of de Sade from 120 Days of Sodom, didn’t even know there was a movie.

    • @ Encore — I’m all about Geoffrey Rush. ALL ABOUT HIM. So of course I had to see this, and of course I loved it. But really there’s much more than his performance to love: Winslet, Phoenix (who manages to make me weep while he’s schtupping a corpse) and especially Michael Caine. Damn that man can be scary.

      @ Simon/Ripley — Check it out. Rush is a deliciously twisted antihero, and his last scene is shocking and funny and kind of (in a very odd way) touching.

  3. This movie was so disgusting and perverse. I loved it. I did. The shit on the walls. The Marquis de Sade have a bawdy tongue. I loved it. Winselt and Phoenix were excellent.

  4. if they do a remake of this, will it be called ‘Pens’?

  5. This might have to come off my TiVo this weekend … you have shamed me of making this one of my last movies on my bucket list of ’00s Oscar nominees.

    • Ok, I watched this and I was suitably entertained. Not blown away, but it was a good rental. I felt like I had seen it somewhere before although I can’t put my finger on where…

  6. An excellent film. You make me want to dust it off and giver her a spin.

  7. [...] “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as [...]

  8. [...] Q is for “Quills” [...]

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