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A Career Spent Near the Edge

Philip Kaufman isn't afraid of tackling prickly subjects. 'Quills' is the latest example.

October 22, 2000|DAVID CHUTE | David Chute is a regular contributor to Calendar

The timing couldn't have been better. It was almost as if the Hollywood-bashers in Washington had timed their salvo to tie in with Fox Searchlight's campaign for its fall release "Quills."

The Federal Trade Commission issued its scathing report on Hollywood's sneaky practice of marketing films with extreme content to children on Sept. 11. And just a few days later director Philip Kaufman flew down to Los Angeles, from his home base in the legendary bohemian enclave of North Beach in San Francisco, to discuss his latest film, "Quills," an ink-black gothic farce about the extremes of free expression under siege.

The film's irrepressible and monstrously entertaining centerpiece (portrayed with free-swinging relish by "Shine" Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush) is none other than the Marquis de Sade, the 18th century pornographer and revolutionary misanthrope whose novels (including "Justine" and "120 Days of Sodom") have linked his name for all time with some of the rougher forms of off-center sexuality.

As the director of the first film ever saddled with an NC-17 rating, "Henry & June" (1990), Kaufman would seem to be the perfect person to weigh in on the FTC report and related issues, or to make a movie that addresses them by implication. And he seems to know this.

"My wife Rose came up with the perfect ad line" for "Quills," Kaufman offers with a characteristic gleam of irony: " 'Not a movie for children of all ages.' "

Politicians can rest easy; unlike other R-rated fare, "Quills" won't be marketed to the under-17 crowd. Kaufman and the studio know it's definitely a spicy meal, suitable only for adult palates.

Throughout his career, Kaufman has been widely admired for consistently making adult-oriented movies with the personal texture and intelligence of an independent, even when he works for major Hollywood studios--a neat trick that few other filmmakers have managed to pull off. He will be honored for this achievement at the American Film Institute's Fest 2000, with a special tribute on Wednesday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

Six of Kaufman's 11 films will be screened during the festival, including "Henry & June," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." "Quills" will have its U.S. premiere at the Egyptian as the closing-night gala presentation on Thursday.

Like "Henry & June," "Quills" has both a strong intellectual and sexual charge. As the movie opens, the marquis has been locked away and forgotten, swept under the social carpet, in the lunatic asylum at Charenton, near Paris. Under the benign supervision of a liberal priest, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), Sade is allowed to purge his insatiable demons on paper, achieving a kind of hectic equilibrium. But Sade is an obsessive verbal exhibitionist for whom the act of expression alone is never enough; he needs to rub people's noses in the spew of his imagination.

With the help of a levelheaded laundress (Kate Winslet), the marquis is smuggling his books out of the asylum to a fly-by-night printer, and the situation has become an open scandal. The main action of the film, which opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 22, is structured around a battle of wills between the marquis and a repressive "alienist," Dr. Royer-Collard (a funereal Michael Caine), who has been dispatched personally by Napoleon to plug the leak at Charenton and to clamp the lid down hard upon Sade's "creativity."

For Kaufman, "the movie is an entertainment about the game of cat and mouse that the marquis plays with his enemies, a series of moves and counter-moves, and about the ingenuity that the obsessed writer summons to get around attempts to silence him." At the same time, he admits, "the film really is about the issue of free speech--about expression and the repression of expression. Those issues are central to Doug Wright's play and to his script, and they were talked about extensively during the making of the film."

In fact, the free-speech angle was deliberately beefed up during the film's development process, as Wright adapted his 1995 play, an off-Broadway hit that was also the inaugural attraction at the renamed Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. At the time, Bill Mechanic was chairman and chief executive of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment. (He resigned in May.)

"The movie I had in my mind when we crafted the play for the screen was 'A Man for All Seasons,' " Mechanic says. "My hope was to bring the ideas to the forefront and let it have reverberations, let it be about a man who would die for what he believes in."

To its credit, the movie never tries to palm off Rush's snarling, grandstanding marquis as a saintly or a civilized figure, an innocent martyr with inconvenient ideas. "I don't think we whitewash the marquis at all," Kaufman declares. "As Doug portrays him, he is selfish and duplicitous and brutal, an aristocrat elitist who smacks his wife around. He is a terrible man."

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