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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Quills

Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet
Director: Phillip Kaufman
Rated: R
RunTime: 127 Minutes
Release Date: December 2000
Genres: Drama, Erotica

*Also starring: Michael Caine, Joaquin Phoenix, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, Amelia Warner, Elizabeth Berrington, Stephen Marcus, Ron Cook

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If you're reading this online review, you are, of course, familiar with the power of the Internet. All sorts of movie data, even whole books, can be uploaded to the 'net and then downloaded in a matter of seconds by readers from Passaic to Port Moresby. How easy things have become in the Information Age! Our very freedom to gather printed and even visual material from a gadget that can be held on our laps furnishes dramatic contrast to the difficulties people had in disseminating their views during the Nineteenth Century and before. Although Gutenberg's invention of movable type had been around for a couple of hundred years, governments and religious leaders were reluctant to allow their people to read materials they considered subversive of the political or social order. In our own time, an age that beholds eight- year-olds gazing casually and without shock at pornography on the Internet, we may feel bemused that at one time some books considered corrupt by those in power were off limits to the populace (as a few are even today). One such work was "Justine," published anonymously but recognized everywhere as the work of the Marquis de Sade. While the contents would today be considered hokey, even downright laughable, the flagrantly erotic text of "Justine" created quite a scandal in Paris, so much so that while many who could get their hands on the outlawed novel gobbled up the pages hungrily, Church officials and even Napoleon himself were apoplectic with outrage.

Phil Kaufman, whose "The Right Stuff" was neither arty nor subtle, now comes across with a decidedly uncommercial movie; cynical where "The Right Stuff" was idealistic, grotesque where the all-American movie was straight-laced, depraved and revolting where the rah-rah picture was uplifting. Based on Doug Wright's Obie (off-Broadway)-award winning play by the same name, "Quills" cannot be mistaken for a naturalistic movie but instead evokes its theatrical origins in virtually every scene. Resembling in spirit Peter Brook's 1996 film "Marat/Sade"--which was in turn based on Peter Weiss's breathing-down-your-neck play about a so- called performance staged by inmates of the French asylum for the insane at Charenton--"Quills" offers a potent, arch, humorous and downright fascinating glimpse into a society both terrified and titillated by literary descriptions of raging sexuality. While "Justine" appears to me to be more gynecological than arousing, the illustrated novel in its time became a cause celebre, as controversial as the current presidential quagmire in the U.S.

"Quills" takes place in 1807 and centers on the Marquis de Sade, a man whose very name has given us the word "sadism" but whose cruelty in this screenplay is limited to a passing comment about his activities--which included the carving up of a 16-year-old's backside and the rubbing of salt into the wound. Instead de Sade is made into an artistic hero, a man who, while imprisoned at a mental institution for his past sadism, is for the most part a gentlemanly, intelligent fellow with a compulsion to write and comfortable quarters to do so. If denied the privilege of putting his ideas on paper with his feathery, quill pen--of subliminating his madness through his art--he believes that he will go as demented as his fellow inmates, who include one guy who thinks he's a bird and another a bald, lecherous Frenchman who could pass for a Sumo wrestler or for the masked executioner who in the opening scene lowers the guillotine on a hapless aristocrat.

The Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) is treated well by the Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who believes that insane people can act reasonably when treated with kindness and given therapy. (In one situation, he gently asks a pyromanic, "Isn't it better to paint fires than to set them")? A virginal chambermaid in the institution, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), is regularly aroused by the Marquis' erotic writings, which she reads to the giggles and pique of other workers, but more important she has been smuggling the banned chapters of the Marquis' literature out of the asylum for general publication--handing the pages over to a mysterious equestrian comrade. With Napoleon himself infuriated by the novels and the Marquis' wife scandalized by the pornography, Dr. Royer-Collar (Michael Caine) is sent to Charenton to bring both the Marquis and the Abbe to heel.

Most of the film deals forcefully, dramatically, and exquisitely with what happens after the Marquis is forbidden to write. His quill pen taken away, he resorts to writing on the tablecloth with a chicken bone dipped in wine. Absent the chicken bone, he pricks his own finger and writes in his own blood. When even the ability to cut himself is removed, he implements yet another resourceful method to get his ideas into print, one which horrifies the entire institution and could turn quite a few stomachs of those in the theater audience. (His final words give new meaning to smut on bathroom walls.)

"Quills" informs us with striking drama what happens when art and sexuality are repressed by the forces of pious hypocrisy. Director Kaufman draws the lines clearly, giving the viewer no doubt that compromise is out of the question. The gentle Abbe is pitted against the throughly unsentimental Royer-Collard, the latter infuriated when his own marriage to a orphaned girl decades younger than he is brutally satirized in a play written by the Marquis and performed by the inmates to the glee and horror of the audience. The Abbe himself is torn between his vows of chastity to the Church and his arousal by both a naked Marquis and the winsome chambermaid, Madeleine. The lovely wife of the Dr. Royer- Collard, Simone (Amelia Warner), is torn between her marriage vows to the aging doctor (who supplies her with all the material luxuries any woman could want) and her "Justine"-inspired desire for the young and handsome architect, Prouix (Stephen Moyer).

While most of the action of this stage-born work is filmed within the institution, Kaufman's photographer, Rogier Stoffer and his production designer, Martin Childs, give the work a painterly essence, a gruesome exhibition of the guillotine in action in the very opening of the film climaxing with the horror that befalls the Marquis as he uncompromisingly alienates the powers that be.

The always reliable Michael Caine plays admirably against the extraordinarily talented Geoffrey Rush, while the erotic nature of the young women is tested against the repressive notions of the Church and government. Strip away the costumes and you could almost see our own times: the ongoing dialectic about Hollywood's alleged corrupting of youths around the world; the absurd overreaction of right- wingers to President Clinton's peccadilloes; even (as ace online critic Maitland McDonagh points out in her prescient essay) the controversy over the defense given by the American Civil Liberties Union to repulsive organizations like the American Nazi Party and other skinhead bands. Contemporary relevance aside, "Quills" stands out as a tough-minded, lush portrayal of people acting in extremis, particularly of one man unwilling, nay unable, to compromise even at the risk of torture and death. There's a place on our screens for small, low-budget indies like Kenneth Lonergan's remarkable "You Can Count on Me," which NY Times critic Stephen Holden named one of the two or three best movies of the year so far. "Quills" demonstrates that we also need off-the-wall high drama, powerful tales of larger-than-life characters whose uncompromising heroism elevates them to mythic stature.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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