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'Quills' Pushes Well Past the Point of Discomfort

From its subject matter to its execution, the film about the Marquis de Sade is tough to handle.


Not content to simply explore the life and philosophy of the celebrated Marquis de Sade, "Quills" soon becomes a sadistic experience in its own right. Experiencing this pretentious wallow--overwritten, under-thought and overdone--is a very sophisticated form of torture.

For if the marquis, his scabrous thoughts on pleasure and pain notwithstanding, was nothing if not genuine, "Quills" is a smug fraud that indulges in the worst kind of pretense. It would like you to believe it's about such high-minded notions as the power of words, the risks of free expression and the price of censorship, but in fact what director Philip Kaufman has come up with is a crude and shameless melodrama weighted down with sham pieties. This film isn't challenging, it's self-congratulatory in the most meretricious way, overripe contrivance masquerading as high art.

"Quills" certainly has the right ingredients for this charade. Stars Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine are all respected; Kaufman himself remains a critical favorite, though his last unalloyed success ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being") is deep in the past; and screenwriter Doug Wright based the script on his Obie-winning play. But credits don't make films, people do, and everyone on the "Quills" team has betrayed their talent by participating in this fiasco.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 23, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 63 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption--The photo caption accompanying the review of the film "Quills" in Wednesday's Calendar mistakenly referred to Joaquin Phoenix as playing a doctor. He plays a priest.

Wright's script is a good place to start the search for unindicted co-conspirators. It's annoyingly and artificially theatrical, rife with bogus philosophizing and wink-wink lines like "the price is every bit as firm as I am," and, worst of all, it's got a sense of character about as subtle as "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon."

In his zeal to make his right-thinking points about the horrors of stifling creativity, Wright hasn't known or cared how much his characters pander to our preconceptions, how much they are obvious, over-familiar heroes and villains whose heroism and venality (and this is where Kaufman comes in) couldn't be written more clearly on their faces if they had capital Hs and Vs stamped on their foreheads.

After a brief prologue illustrating the French Revolution at the height of the Paris Terror, "Quills" shifts to the Charenton Asylum and its most infamous inmate, the marquis. (Filmgoers with good memories will remember this same institution as the site of "Marat/Sade," the 1966 Peter Brook-directed version of the Peter Weiss play.)

A tireless scribbler who considers himself "a writer, not a madman," the marquis (Australian actor Rush, "Shine's" Oscar winner) wears out quill after quill in a cell liberally decorated with what is probably the greatest collection of Oriental sex toys in all France.

Madeleine (Winslet), charmingly described in the press notes as "a ravishing young laundress," gets a kick out of flirting with the nasty old marquis. She also helps him out by smuggling his manuscripts to Paris, that hotbed of perfidy, where back-street publishers can't print them fast enough for a public that doesn't have the Spice Channel to distract it.

Unfortunately, a copy of the marquis' latest, "Justine," reaches the hands of Napoleon (played, with characteristic heavy-handedness, as someone whose short, childish legs don't reach the floor when he sits on the throne). The emperor, no surprise here, is not amused, and decides to put a tough-love advocate in charge of the marquis' asylum.

That would be Dr. Royer-Collard (an unsmiling Michael Caine), a "man of iron resolve" who considers idealism "youth's final luxury." Sternness itself, Royer-Collard is the kind of guy who takes it as a deserved compliment when people call him old-fashioned and barbaric.

Currently in charge of Charenton is the doctor's opposite number, the idealistic young Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a godly man who believes in reason, compassion and therapy. He lets the inmates put on plays, paint, even, in the marquis' case, put his thoughts on paper as "a purgative for the toxins of his mind" (though becoming the Jackie Collins of Paris was not part of the bargain). He also has his eye on young Madeleine, but what with his being a priest and her being a ravishing laundress, it's a complicated relationship.

Royer-Collard, for his part, considers inmate theater "playing dress-up with cretins," so a battle with the saintly abbe is in the cards. If you're naive enough to expect a fair fight, you'll be disappointed. The doctor, it turns out, has taken a child bride of just 16 (Amelia Warner) literally straight from a nunnery, and the way he treats her on their wedding night would not make fellow physician Dr. Ruth Westheimer happy. My God, the man is a hypocrite. What a revelation.

The celebrated marquis, the center of all this attention, turns out to be a terrible showoff as well as a spoiled brat. Rush's portrayal of him is occasionally amusing, but though its excessiveness is what the director wanted, it's much too gaudy a performance to be meaningful and the great man's endless smugness does not wear at all well.

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