When assessing the merits of Quills, the lusty new feature by director Philip Kaufman (Henry and June), you're tempted to seek corresponding characters from popular movies in order to illustrate just how average this story is. In Kaufman's film -- affectionately constructed from a screenplay by Doug Wright, who adapts his award-winning play -- we discover a fairly standard dichotomy: Geoffrey Rush is the Marquis de Sade, a pouty artist; Michael Caine is Dr. Royer-Collard, a seemingly upstanding manipulator of psyches. Tweak the universe a bit, and you've got Magneto and Dr. Xavier from the X-Men. Add songs and eyeliner, and you've got Frank-N-Furter and Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror. Envision soft-core Dr. Seuss, and you may even see the Grinch and Cindy-Lou Who (a shame that didn't come to pass -- just imagine the inspired casting of Caine as the latter). Beneath the rollicking performances and passionate execution, what we have here is yet another tale of the abused, misunderstood outsider being assailed by the heartless tormenter. Congratulations on the one-billionth entry.
If only Kaufman didn't feel obliged to apply such a thick layer of hero-worship. Wright's curious perspective -- that Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was, foremost, a brilliant poet of the senses and not a vicious monster at all -- remains chiseled into every scene from start to finish, but it would have behooved the director to take a few liberties with the playwright's lovable libertine. Perhaps he could have asked Rush to tone down the cuddliness and asked Caine to employ at least half an ounce of humanity. It is odd that this story of depravity and martyrdom is painted almost entirely in thick strokes of black and white without even the slightest flush of ambivalence. You know the drill: religion and authority, bad; sex and wankery, good. Technically, it's an impressive piece of work, but in Kaufman's hands, the foul marquis becomes as trite as a wild horse in a teenage girl's sketchbook: noble, glorious and incapable of unpleasantness...apart from Rush's abundant nude scenes, anyway, which truly allow us to share his character's suffering.
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The action centers upon Charenton Asylum in the years immediately following the Reign of Terror, when, by an obscure edict forgotten by most historians, Napoleon commanded all French citizens to speak English for the audience's comfort and enjoyment. Leading these linguistic slaves is the Marquis de Sade, a bad boy and good writer persecuted throughout his life for such trifles as rape and murder. Having endured years of imprisonment, during which he purportedly witnessed the deaths of thousands by guillotine, he emerged to become his era's most poetic and prolific smut peddler. Eventually, Bonaparte arrested him again and threw him into the relative comfort of the asylum for his remaining years. When we meet the marquis, dusty and foppish in powdered wig and topcoat, he inhabits his lavish Gothic cell as a master of his craft, churning out "naughty little tales...guaranteed to stimulate the senses." Deprived of his freedom and slowly succumbing to the brittleness of advanced age, his inkwell and beloved quills become his most intimate link with the world, both outside and inside the asylum.
A hot-blooded chambermaid named Madeleine (Kate Winslet) shares a mutual fancy with the marquis and, possessing a key to his ominous door, takes to smuggling his stories out with the dirty linen. While the benevolent young abbé, Simonet de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), runs his asylum with compassionate attention to the special needs of his charges (particularly the marquis), his sexual denial and countless responsibilities keep him from noticing that his establishment is ground zero for the pornographic bee in Napoleon's tricorn. To apply a firmer hand to the dissolute dandy, Antoine Royer-Collard (Caine) is dispatched to Charenton. An alienist and expert in devices of medieval torture, the doctor does not approve of the abbé's lenient methods of therapy, which include allowing the marquis to write and direct plays for the cast of gibbering inmates. ("My glorious prose, filtered through the minds of the insane," murmurs the marquis near the film's bitter end. "Who knows, they might improve it.") Complicating matters, the doctor has plucked a young orphan (Amelia Warner) from a nunnery to function both as his wife and as a receptacle of frustration --and who better to be turned on by the marquis's stories, to set in motion the rickety wheels of retribution?
The strength of the project emerges from its exceptional cast and impeccable design. Phoenix is the surprise star of the piece, adding yet another role to his impressive resumé. Although Rush commands attention with all his strutting and fretting, his resentful, pound-of-flesh antics pale in comparison to the intimate scenes he shares with the hungry yet restrained Winslet and, even more, with his estranged wife (Jane Menelaus). Caine is a perfect villain -- too perfect, in fact -- yet all his attempts to woo his young charge with Peruvian marble, ceiling beams from Provençe and a trompe l'oeil over the ballroom do not explain why the girl does not even flinch when he attacks. Even this glaring improbability is nearly swallowed up by the sumptuous production design from Martin Childs (Shakespeare in Love), who provides the stage for this battle of vice and virtue.
To be sure, Kaufman has a great talent for exploring wanton appetites and sexual disparities, as evidenced in his adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and, of course, the diaries of Anaïs Nin (Henry and June). However, in a culture in which the infidelities of Bill Clinton and Hugh Grant have only enhanced their public stature, and in which Larry Flynt's clarion call of "Relax -- it's just sex" seems fairly well embraced by the masses, the director now comes across as an old-fashioned hippie bellowing for free love. True, Quills pushes buttons and tickles us with its dark prurience, but because its central conflict is so glaringly obvious, its protagonist so immensely unappealing, the themes lose much of their impact. Hardly revolutionary, merely quaint, Quills is unlikely to "make the angels weep and the saints all gasp for air." But it should titillate the Bible Belt.