The thought that most immediately comes to mind with the mention of the Marquis de Sade is that of sex — not just any sex, but the kinkiest acts of fornication imaginable. Yet Philip Kaufman’s provocative account of the infamous 19th Century French writer’s final days is titled “Quills,” and the reason is simple: this powerful version of Sade’s story is one ultimately not about sensationalistic salaciousness, but the power — and price — of self-expression.
But sex — both the forced act of and graphic writing about it — is, after all, what lands the Marquis in various forms of captivity: prison and, ultimately, an asylum. It is in the latter, Charenton, where Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) is introduced, submitting his latest torrid text to a publisher through unlikely supporter Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a young laundress. Immediately upon publication, Sade’s sexually explicit “Justine” is the talk of France, leading an outraged Napoleon to send self-righteous Dr. Royer-Collard (Michæl Caine) to Charenton and give Sade the discipline he had not been receiving under Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the young priest in charge of the asylum.
The clashes and collisions that power “Quills” don’t necessarily derive from differences in one’s nature rather than differences in one’s ideals. The conflict between Royer-Collard and the Marquis is the film’s most heated, but they are two sides of the same proverbial coin. For all his talk about morality, Royer-Collard is himself engaged in a scandalous affair — that with Simone (Amelia Warner), his very young, almost child-like bride; the hypocritical doctor shields what would otherwise be a frowned-upon indulgence under an “upstanding” societal convention — marriage — while Sade is shameless in expressing his darker, deep-seated urges. The seemingly angelic Madeleine is, in fact, Sade’s closest match. She is quite comfortable with and honest about having those base instincts, but she knows her place in her constricting world; hence, she enjoys her natural naughtiness in the expanse of her mind, whose limitless imagination is further fueled by possibilities presented by Sade’s incendiary prose. For the Abbé, his most-valued belief in a divinity overpowers — barely — his simmering attraction to Madeleine.
The psychological conflicts, both internal and external, are lent immediacy by the actors. Caine, in a much more impressive performance than his Oscar-winning “Cider House Rules” turn, is a subtly formidable foil to Rush, who gives the Marquis genuine vulnerability as his veneers are gradually stripped away. The complexities of Madeleine are handled with characteristic ease by the ever-astonishing (and ravishing) Winslet, and Phoenix proves his versatility with his nuanced portrayal of the anguished Abbé.
Given the subject matter, “Quills” could have been unbearably heavy, but Kaufman and writer Doug Wright (adapting his own play) infuse the film with a decadent playfulness befitting a film about the Marquis — a spirit that is perfectly embodied by the exuberant Rush. This quality does act as reinforcement of the film’s endorsement of uninhibited expression, but to Kaufman and Wright’s credit, they don’t sidestep the negative fallout that could occur along with the obvious benefits of artistic freedom. Prices, both fair and unfair, are paid all around, and those costs continue to be felt even after “Quills” etches the disappointingly contrived images of its lackluster epilogue.