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Quills (Phillip Kaufman) 2000

Phil Kaufman’s Quills is best viewed as a comic-book style biography of one of literature’s more interesting public figures. The film starts with the Marquis DeSade (Geoffrey Rush) watching a disturbingly graceful public execution, but quickly shuffles him off to an institution where he’s locked in a room for the rest of the film. This is an interesting choice to tell this tale, and not really one that I agree with. Since he's in such a restrictive setting, the film’s most charismatic character is never allowed to show more than a sampling of what he’s capable. If DeSade is only prancing about to entertain lunatics, he’s obviously going to be pandering to them. Basically, the film never really lets DeSade shock anyone for the sake of shocking them. It never allows him to have sex for pleasure. It never lets him do what he does best. It's mostly a fault of the script which is far too literal for its own good. It believes that in order to show it's stance, which is nearly that the world is corrupt and mad and DeSade is the only one honest about his desires and ambitions, it must take place in the microcosm of an asylum. That is the sort of directorial move that might make sense in a stage play (not surprisingly, this film is adapted from one) but feels restrictive on screen.  

Besides these unresolved script problems, Kaufman's direction is solid, and there is a good sense of period detail. Particularly impressive are the opening decapitation and a sequence in which the inmates form a verbal bucket brigade to relate one of DeSade's stories to Kate Winslet's chambermaid so she may smuggle it out of the asylum, to the eager public. As the film continues DeSade's knowledge of sex becomes his only weapon against the oppression he faces from the institution’s managers -  naturally, and overtly, a priest (Joaquin Phoenix) and a doctor (Michael Caine).  Most of the film deals with him as he smuggles his tales out of the institution through the chambermaid. What this descends into get is an obvious, heavy-handed criticism of censorship (perhaps this rhetoric is why the National Board of Review felt it necessary to award it with its Best Picture honor.) This simplicity in  its anti-censorship message keep it from achieving the greatness that it strives for. The Marquis' dirty mouth infects the movie with such a sense of glee that when the inevitable downfalls occur, they don't have the impact that's needed.  Most of the film's elements, including the acting and technical aspects, fail to come together like they should to sustain a mood. Still, because of the inherent fun side of the subject matter, the film manages to be somewhat entertaining. It’s just that it fails to be exceptional nor very able to be taken seriously since it is so blatantly obvious in its symbols and archetypes.


September, 2001

Jeremy Heilman