Philip Kaufman is a filmmaker whose intentions almost always seem greater than his abilities (The Right Stuff, Henry and June, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), so it’s a pleasure to report that intentions and ability have found even footing in Quills — one of the most fascinating and literate films to come along in some time. Despite the sensationalistic nature of the subject matter and an advertising campaign that focuses on the notoriety of the Marquis De Sade (“The pleasure is all his”), Quills is not a film about sex and sadism — though it certainly does not shy away from either topic. Rather, Quills is a film about ideas, which is a pretty challenging notion these days. During the course of its running time, Quills manages to address more ideas than any dozen different mainstream movies usually manage altogether. If any single theme runs through the film more than another, it is probably the idea that censorship is not only morally suspect, but dangerous in the extreme. It is less the “perverse” writings of the Marquis De Sade (brilliantly portrayed by Geoffrey Rush) that are shown to be dangerous than it is their suppression. More to the point, the efforts to suppress these writings unleash horrors fully as sadistic as anything dreamed up in the Marquis’ fervid imagination — just bedecked with hypocritical rationalizations. The plot of the film revolves around an outraged, patently ludicrous and spoiled-brat Napoleon (Ron Cook), talked into letting Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine in his best performance in a long time) attempt to “cure” the Marquis, rather than simply have the notorious nobleman shot. And Dr. Royer-Collard is far more cruel and deranged than his supposed patient. The difference is that the Marquis plays out his twisted fantasies on paper, while Royer-Collard gets to act them all out in the name of science or morality. A secondary theme — about the perils of repression — also runs through the film. This is equally important to the film’s development, especially as concerns the strange relationship between de Sade and the Abbe (Joaquin Phoenix) who operates the asylum where the Marquis is imprisoned, and the laundress (Kate Winslet) who sneaks the Marquis’ writings to his publishers. Without giving away too much of the film’s clever plot, it can be revealed that the Abbe’s attempts (mostly from pressure by Royer-Collard) to silence the Marquis prove utterly destructive to all concerned. This is a film of immense complexity and depth, and not always a pleasant one to watch. It recalls an earlier, more adventurous period in filmmaking, and two films in particular: Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1968) and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). As such, it is a welcome return to movies that dare to openly tackle themes Hollywood tends to shy away from. However, this is also where Quills slightly misses the mark. Wright’s screenplay is everything it should be: witty, literate, insightful, disturbing, frequently howlingly funny. And Kaufman’s direction is almost mindbogglingly stylish. The problem is that the film itself is not sufficiently stylized. To completely work, Quills needed to create its own world rather than, as it does, attempt to place its stylish allegory in an identifiably real world. This alone the film from being quite the masterpiece it so very nearly is. Even so, it is no small accomplishment and is probably the most intelligent film of the year.
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