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The infamous 18th century pornographer, Donatien-Alphonse-François, Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is languishing in jail. Although middle aged, he remains defiant and takes humanism to its most extreme conclusion: ‘If it is in my nature to be cruel, then that is my natural morality’. He manages to smuggle his writings out of jail with the help of the laundress, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), and resists attempts by the prison’s boss-priest, Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) to reform. He also resists the more violent forms of reform meted out by the King’s messenger, Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine); he will never be silenced – nor, more to the point, his writing quills quietened.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Outrageous and sometimes bordering on brilliant, sometimes on silly, Quills is nevertheless an engaging film, its subject as perverse as Hannibal Lecter, equally depraved, and of an equally towering intellect. Geoffrey Rush makes the Marquis de Sade a foppish figure, decadent, determined, desperate and devilishly deranged. Funny, even. His is a performance of great dynamics and quite theatrical, but it still works on the screen, partly because he is just a very good actor, partly because the period and this character allow him that oversize performance. Still, the film generates a tone reminiscent of a circus boasting freaks at whom we gaze with benign amazement. We are dragged to de Sade’s bosom, as it were, enjoined to his crusade of guilty pleasures even as these become life threatening and sexually violent. (The film tones this latter element down, but it is there.) 

This jokey mood – especially in the first half – together with some of the silly, melodramatic propositions such as de Sade writing lengthy works using his own blood and later, excrement, reduce the film’s credibility and hence its potential impact. But many sequences are scorchingly entertaining with the bravado of their writing and execution, much aided by a full blooded production design. The intellectual and moral battle that de Sade wages is transformed into a crusade for free speech purely by say-so. It reminds me of the man refused a visa to Australia because he propagated Holocaust-denial propaganda. Where does one man’s freedom of speech turn into another man’s moral poison? Quills plays on this question but doesn’t quite nail the matter. Perhaps there are champions of free speech with more going for them.

This is a perfect film for DVD, with its rich, period setting and its eccentric central character; technically satisfying on DVD, it is also supported by a handful of features which, while rounded and informative, fall into the common trap of repetitive inserts and overlays from the film itself. This standard doco approach simply wearies the DVD viewer, no matter how well it’s done. Better to keep the features short and illustrate from the film sparingly. The approach still smacks of tv doco objectives of teasing us to see the film. 

The exception to this is the feature, Dressing the Part, which relies less on the clip insert and more on genuine extra material.

There is erudite and intelligent commentary, however, by writer Doug Wright, who – in the absence of director Philip Kaufman – fills in wherever he can on the filmmaking aspects as well as the screenplay issues. He has the good sense, what’s more, to shut up if he has nothing worthwhile to say. This is the additional material that makes the DVD worthwhile.

Published October 10, 2002

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CAST: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine

DIRECTOR: Philip Kaufman

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes


SPECIAL FEATURES: Marquis on the Marquee; Creating Charenton; Dressing the Part; Theatrical Trailers; Commentary by screenwriter Doug Wright; Stills Gallery of production artefacts; Fact and Film

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: August 13, 2002

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