(director: Philip Kaufman; screenwriter: Doug Wright, based upon his play; cinematographer: Rogier Stoffers; editor: Peter Boyle; cast: Geoffrey Rush (Marquis de Sade), Kate Winslet (Madeleine), Joaquin Phoenix (Abbe Coulmier), Michael Caine (Dr. Royer-Collard), Billie Whitelaw (Madame Leclerc), Patrick Malahide (Delbené), Amelia Warner (Simone), Jane Menelaus (Renée Pelagie), Stephen Moyer (Prouix), Tony Pritchard (Valcour), Michael Jenn (Cléante), Danny Babington (Pitou), George Yiasoumi (Dauphin), Stephen Marcus (Bouchon), Elizabeth Berrington (Charlotte); Runtime: 120; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2000)

“The film failed because it was too dull to be entertaining and it didn’t have anything startling to say about a startling subject.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

I’m not an admirer of Philip Kaufman’s (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being) previous films. In Quills, he has adapted Doug Wright’s play to create a drab period piece of the Marquis de Sade story. It lacks an edginess, as the shocks it creates against civilization’s sensibility are not geared to move the intellect. Its theme embellished the belief that freedom is in writing without censorship. The film’s rallying cry could be, ‘Bring me a quill!’

The story is set after the days of the French Revolution, when the Napoleonic empire was in place. It was a time of mixed messages in the areas of social reform and repression. The story takes place in the Charenton Asylum, where the Marquis de Sade (Rush) has been spared his life and has become the most famous inmate of the asylum. He occupies luxurious accommodations in a private cell, is given the privilege to write for the hospital’s theater, has his own library, a feathered bed, and is served special gourmet meals. These privileges are all paid for by his wealthy wife. He doesn’t have the privilege to publish, but does so by smuggling his manuscripts out with the virgin laundress, Madeleine (Winslet). The asylum is run by the benevolent Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who believes in progressive methods to help his 200 patients and that kindness is the medicine to cure them.

The story picks up when the Marquis’ sadistic-erotic book “Justine” is published in Paris and achieves popularity with the public. Napoleon decides to burn the book and take action against the author. He calls in a man of science, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), to be the overseer of the asylum. He allows him to use torture, if necessary, to get the Marquis to conform. The elderly Royer takes a lovely virgin teenage bride, Simone (Warner), from the nunnery and goes to live in Charenton. Their marriage becomes the target of a new vulgar play the Marquis puts on about them while they are in attendance, which gives Royer the ammunition needed to shut down the theater and for Coulmier to take away his quills.

Since the Marquis must write in order to live, he finds various unique ways to write his manuscripts and get them out. But when the Marquis is caught in the act of smuggling, his privileges are removed; eventually, he is left naked in his bare cell after being tortured. His liberal care under Coulmier now changes completely to Royer-Collard’s harsher treatment of him.

Kaufman shot this dreary tale at Pinewood Studios and used mostly an English cast, some cast members were Australian and American. In this version, the Marquis de Sade is made out to be more of a misguided writer and a witty aristocrat than truly a murderous villain. There are many quotes from his writings, but not those that show him in his more beastly nature. The best quote is when looking at the figure of the Virgin he says: “An entire religion built on an oxymoron.” Royer-Collard is reduced to be more the villain than the Marquis is. Phoenix is the idealistic priest, who is mentally tortured by what he sees and what he has become. He has the most solid role in the film and makes the best of it. Kate Winslet didn’t convince me she was a peasant laundress, but she still came off with a feisty although a forgettable performance.

The film failed because it was too dull to be entertaining and it didn’t have anything startling to say about a startling subject to be an innovative film. Its shrill moments outweighed its moments of irony; its best moment was when it was able to show how insane the men of reason were in their treatment of the mentally ill. This was a middlebrow work, that made light of the innovative Marquis as a man who was merely politically incorrect rather than completely debased. He was glorified for his wit only because he was up against a heavy-handed man of science in Michael Caine and a hypocritical man of the cloth in Joaquin Phoenix. Aiming at those targets is like shooting at ducks in a pond.

Kate Winslet and Geoffrey Rush in Quills (2000)