Quills will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will make you queasy. It will make you moist. Occasionally, it will do all of these things to you simultaneously . . . which probably sounds like hyperbole, but believe me, it isn't. Quills is a film that will leave you exhausted and grateful.
I won't keep you in suspense; I adored this movie. And so will you, if you have any sense at all. I left the film quite impressed with it, but in the days since Quills has come back again and again to haunt my imagination.
Spun rather loosely from the true-life tale of the Marquis de Sade, Quills begins with a prologue in which de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) witnesses the sexiest execution you've ever seen (an execution that is also heartbreakingly sad and quite gross, a three-way combo that's so bizarre it's kind of funny; see opening paragraph). The execution inspires de Sade to pen an explosively lurid novel, a novel that will be so successful that it will lead outraged French authorities to chuck its author into an asylum. Once incarcerated, de Sade amuses himself by toying with the fancies of Madeline, a spunky laundress (Kate Winslet), and Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the asylum's hapless master, both of whom de Sade rightly regards as "beautiful young prospects, ripe for corruption." When it is discovered that de Sade has continued to publish new work despite his confinement, the state calls in the wicked Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to beat some sense into him. Then the foreplay ends and we get down to the really nasty stuff, as an epic battle of wills ensues between the Marquis and the forces of repression.
The Marquis is equal parts charming rogue and utter prick, and Rush plays this richly complex antihero for all he's worth. It is a performance of great, plummy ripeness, although several of Rush's co-stars do almost equally amazing things with less showy roles. Looking as gray and lumpy as a moldy biscuit, Caine exudes a malevolence that is quietly over-the-top. While de Sade is the one locked up for being a sadist, Royer-Collard is the one who really gets off on inflicting pain. As the poor, lost Abbe, Pheonix ably carries our sympathies even as what he does grows ever more repugnant. Coulmier is as good and weak as de Sade is zestfully cruel, and when the moment arrives in which de Sade has grown as heroic as Abbe has grown depraved, we grieve for Coulmier even as we cheer for de Sade. As Madeline, Kate Winslet's performance is so affecting that you occasionally manage to tear your eyes away from her spectacular cleavage. Perhaps that sounds alarmingly sexist, but Winslet's loveliness here simply cannot go unmentioned. Nearly every male in the film is deeply smitten with Madeline, and she, bless her heart, seems a little smitten with each of them. Winslet's Madeline is no mere eye candy; she is a spunky, smart and courageous young woman who happens to be beautiful. But what beauty!
In style, Quills calls to mind both the pretty talkiness of the Merchant-Ivory lit-flicks and the blood 'n' bosoms, Gothic horror shows that made Hammer Films such a cheesy thrill. Just when it threatens to sink too far into the former, Quills gooses you with a bit of the latter. This is a film of such emotional intensity that it approaches camp without ever quite giving in, or at least not to a degree that any sensible person could complain about.
It's certainly a far greater picture than anybody could have expected from director Philip Kaufman. His past work has ranged from the pleasing (The Right Stuff) to the abominable (Henry and June), but he has never produced a work of art before. With Quills, he has.
QUILLS WAS DIRECTED BY PHILIP KAUFMAN; PRODUCED BY JULIA CHASMAN, NICK WECHLER AND PETER KAUFMAN; WRITTEN BY DOUG WRIGHT; AND STARS GEOFFREY RUSH, MICHAEL CAINE, JOAQUIN PHEONIX AND KATE WINSLET. NOW PLAYING AT EDWARDS' SOUTH COAST VILLAGE, SANTA ANA.
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