Main cast: Geoffrey Rush (Marquis de Sade), Kate Winslet (Madeline), Joaquin Phoenix (Abbe Coulmier), Billie Whitelaw (Madame LeClerc), Stephen Marcus (Bouchon), Amelia Warner (Simone), Stephen Moyer (Prioux), Jane Menelaus (Renée Pelagie), on Cook (Napoléon I Bonaparte), and Michael Caine (Dr Royer-Collard)
Director: Philip Kaufman
Philip Kaufman’s latest screen adaptation of a literary work, this time from his play written by Doug Wright, Quills is a delightfully nasty yet tragic tale of one man’s insane perversity and the tragic consequences on those around him. Yes, this is another one of those movies that attempt to portray psychos as Defenders of Free Speech (or something like that), but it scores big thanks to brilliant acting from its cast and a clever script.
Taking place in a French madhouse, the Marquis de Sade spends his time writing erotica (really purple ones) that are smuggled out by 17-year old maid Madeline to be published. The supervisor and asylum manager, Coulmier, believes the Marquis’s writing to be therapeutic, a way to release the poisonous toxins in Sade’s mind, but little does he know that Sade’s work is being published. Napoleon finds out, and sends Dr Royer-Collard, a sadistic man indeed, to – ahem – “advise” Coulmier in his duties.
Trapped between Sade’s and Royer-Collard’s domineering and manipulative ways and caught in his own forbidden feelings for Madeline, Coulmier will soon find that his kind, forgiving nature is put to test in the worst ways possible.
Geoffrey Rush really camps it up in his role as Sade, and he is excellent. Sade may be a master manipulator and a sick nutcase, but in the end, he is also a pathetic old man who actually depends on the charities of the men he mocks. He knows it, and it makes him even more bitter and thus hateful. At the other extreme, Royer-Collard is calm, controlled, and he ruthlessly runs down Coulmier with a cruel streak as hard as Sade’s. It is a delicious irony to see his too-young wife read Sade and run off with a much younger and virile architect.
But oh, Joaquin Phoenix! His Coulmier is a truly tragic figure. A man whose virility just seethes under his calm, placid exterior, he is as much trapped in his own vows of chastity and devotion as Sade is trapped in his own madness. And can I say that man is just as sexy as sin? If I were Madeline, you bet I will have a lot of difficulty keeping myself from corrupting this sweet young Coulmier. Noble, selfless, and definitely out of his league in this power struggle between Sade and he, he just can’t win.
The only loose cannon here is Winslet’s Madeline, and that is because the script underwrites her in a way that is criminal. What motivates Madeline to be so obsessed with defying the rules and idolizing Sade? I am never told. Her actions that catalyzed the tragic climax towards the end seem stupid in a “she-asked-for-it” manner and just as pointless because Madeline’s psyche is never revealed to the audience. It severely undermines this movie. Let this be a lesson to male scriptwriters – never underestimate the importance of female characters in your works. Madeline is a vital anchor that links Sade, Coulmier, and Royer-Collard together, and ignoring her characterization just doesn’t make sense. But that is what happened here, with almost fatal results to this movie.
Still, the script is delightful and even evil in its wordplay and shock value. It can get a bit too focused on buggery to milk its laughs for its own good, but there’s no denying Quills is a brilliant and bittersweet portrayal of madness, perverse behaviors, and irony. And oh yeah, the sight of Joaquin Phoenix, smouldering with unrequited love and lust, the sight of such a romantic, tortured hero is worth the price of my ticket alone.