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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 19.27%
Average: 16.51%
Pretty Bad: 12.84%
Total Crap: 3.67%

10 reviews, 49 user ratings

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by Stephen Groenewegen

"Beauty and Abomination"
3 stars

As a friend put it, Quills is "a big, messy ink blot of a movie". Doug Wright (who adapted his off-Broadway play) and director Philip Kaufman have selected various facts from the life of the Marquis de Sade to illustrate their ruminations on art, censorship, politics, religion and sex.

Quills is set in Charenton asylum, where the Marquis has been imprisoned - yet again - for penning his "encyclopaedia of perversions". By the time Quills is set, de Sade should be about 70, but here he's played by 49 year old Geoffrey Rush (and a delicious performance it is too). De Sade's novel Justine was published about 25 years earlier, and was not written in captivity, but Wright's version has the book released while de Sade is at Charenton. Wright's screenplay revolves around a plot with echoes of Justine (as I recall from reading it, years ago) - the differing fates of two young girls, one devoted to a life of virtue, the other of vice.

In Quills, the pure-hearted girl is Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who uses her position as laundress to smuggle de Sade's manuscripts from the asylum. De Sade subverted the established moral order - his virtuous heroines suffered humiliation, poverty, punishment and death. Madeleine remains a virgin, despite her rough, working-class surroundings and proximity to de Sade - and ends up a victim. Simone (an engaging Amelia Warner) is the child-bride of Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), the barbaric doctor sent by Napoleon to Charenton to stop de Sade writing. Simone wallows in vice, despite her domineering husband and convent upbringing - and is ultimately liberated. Caine is the symbol of authority and science; Joaquin Phoenix's Abbe Coulmier, who runs the asylum, is the representative of the church. He's considered de Sade's writing to be therapeutic, but is proven weak-willed, and as hypocritical as the doctor, when he wilts under the latter's influence.

Quills is full of titillating sex and violence, shot by Rogier Stoffers against lurid skys. It comes complete with a frenzy of heaving bosoms and straining corsets, parading Monty Pythonesque-freaks and loons, beheadings and torture in gruesome close-up, even a threesome amongst the peasantry and a necrophilic fantasy. Rush's performance is positively restrained in comparison (and yes, that's a pun). He provides the film's wit, and personifies its obsession with "beauty and abomination" in juxtaposition. He is a refreshing mixture of spite and nobility, venom and exuberance; defiant and obstinate in the pursuit of his art, but never reduced to a crusading hero.

Struggling to be comprehended in this heady mix are Wright and Kaufman's ideas, mainly about the inter-connection between art, violence and sex - how freedom through story-telling may be matched by the suggestive (erotic, dangerous) power of words. When art provokes violence (as it does at the film's tragic climax), is the gullible, excitable audience to blame? Was writing a compulsion for de Sade (like defecation and fornication)? Was de Sade an artist, or - as the film literally presents him - just wallowing in his own shit?

Wright and Kaufman aren't presenting answers or solutions. Quills is successful in showing de Sade in the context of his readership - the popular acceptance of his work, his stories spreading like wildfire (150 years before the internet), the climate which produced them. But they don't succeed in elaborating on de Sade himself: he writes and is locked up; then he writes when he is locked up. But Rush is the best thing about the movie, and it dims in the last act when he's largely off screen. The fictional Justinian sub-plots take centre-stage and Quills becomes mechanised melodrama.

While Rush is representing art and literature, the film has a kick. There are some marvellous sequences that revolve around his storytelling - a play-within-a-play which de Sade concocts to humiliate Royer-Collard, the desperate manner in which he conveys his final stories. When he is side-lined, science and the state versus the church is a more predictable contest.

Phoenix, Caine and Winslet do their best with pallid characters, but it's Rush you remember. De Sade would have been proud.

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originally posted: 03/20/01 08:41:24
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User Comments

9/09/08 Arcane An original story - though a bit boring. Phoenix is excellent as usual. 3 stars
3/11/07 Roy F. Moore The Marquis DeSade as the good guy? Are they nuts? Flee this drivel. 1 stars
2/02/04 Gabriela Great movie. Amazing cast. 5 stars
10/02/03 Mopsa Funny and heartbreaking and incredibly brave. Terrific cast 5 stars
9/16/03 Pinkline Jones The user woke me up 2 stars
8/04/03 punjab pure aldrated horseshit! 1 stars
5/18/03 Ventana Racy and Raunchy, but a lot of FUN. Acting is superb! 5 stars
4/08/03 Mystique Very good acting! 5 stars
2/22/03 Blabity blah complete drivel. Misuse of talented actors. Crap Script. 1 stars
1/01/03 Jack Sommersby A simplistic dumbing-down of a controversial topic by a myopic Lefty. 1 stars
12/28/02 grardo just great 5 stars
7/27/02 AgentDS What a delictable morsel of decadently delicious cinema! 5 stars
4/26/02 Charles Tatum Rush is great and Winslet is sexy 5 stars
4/24/02 Danielle Ophelia Both delicious and disturbing--haunting, multidimensional, witty and acerbic. 5 stars
2/08/02 John Linton Roberson Lovely(both set & Winslet)but ultimately too cutesy. 3 stars
1/17/02 Piz an acting clinic for the ages thats strange, funny, and engaging 4 stars
1/02/02 Duke Disturbing yet brilliant....the dvd writer's commentary is necessary to understand the film 5 stars
12/15/01 Butterbean A disturbing picture with an ending that would piss you off 4 stars
12/13/01 Dominik Duprelle Intelligent, caustic black comedy/drama with a wicked sense of fun-enjoy it! 5 stars
11/27/01 Hum interesting 4 stars
10/22/01 Tam Beautiful and haunting. Dark and witty by turns, with superb performances. 5 stars
6/17/01 artpaws An artist for today! unsavory, anti-social, of abysmal quality: spokesman for free speech 4 stars
6/13/01 Jennifer I was speechless 4 stars
6/11/01 Matt M Disturbing but ravishing 4 stars
6/09/01 *~Danielle*Ophelia~* (formerly KyLe*BrOfLoVsKi) Wow... 5 stars
6/04/01 Basil Excellent movie. 5 stars
5/26/01 nanci Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely spell-binding; a masterpiece 5 stars
5/15/01 The Bomb 69 not your typical hollywood ending, I loved it!!! 5 stars
5/15/01 othree I actually enjoyed it, had heard horrific comments, Rush, Marquis De Sade was wonderful 4 stars
5/07/01 Mitja Podgajski I love this movie.. 4 stars
4/19/01 Tam Disturbing and beautiful. No cliches. Rush should have won that Best Actor Oscar. 5 stars
3/28/01 viking Overlong and sordid 3 stars
3/21/01 Great movie about freedom of expression! 5 stars
3/15/01 Lady Disdain Strong and Entertaining; Winslet and Phoenix are phenomenal 5 stars
3/04/01 matthew smith Geoffrey rush is superb 5 stars
2/21/01 Rocket Boy Less than some of Kaufman's other works, but Rush was wonderful. 3 stars
2/13/01 LAZY Simplistic, inaccurate, disgusting. Does historical context matter to anyone? 3 stars
2/08/01 Johnny Figaro Caine was better in Muppet XMas Carol. Overwrought and overrated 2 stars
2/06/01 Matthew Bartley Terrific.Kind of a medevial One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest 5 stars
1/16/01 bats beautiful and disturbing like a train can't stop watching. 4 stars
1/12/01 Lisa P I loved the chances this movie took...the content was and still is highly controversial. 5 stars
1/07/01 bison it was great. 5 stars
1/03/01 insectk kicks boocoo ass 5 stars
1/02/01 Jennifer Phelps Incredible movie! 5 stars
12/24/00 Jenny-My-Fur incredible, possibly one of the best movies of the year, fan-fucking-tastic 5 stars
12/18/00 tnt great performances......but a sleeper nonetheless 3 stars
12/08/00 Boy In The Designer Bubble Man, those wig wearing brothers could cop the honies. 5 stars
12/05/00 Artist Freak Un freaking real. My favorite movie in a long, long time. 5 stars
11/29/00 Heather One of the year's best, great acting, thought provoking re: hypocrisy & free speech 5 stars
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  25-Dec-2000 (R)
  DVD: 08-May-2001


  01-Mar-2001 (M)

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