Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Quills (2000)

There was perhaps no figure as controversial for their time as the Marquis de Sade, the French writer who published lewd, sexually-explicit novels that were beyond taboo in the years of the French Revolution. A film about his life, therefore, would be difficult to make, as one would have to make him sympathetic to the audience while showing how polarizing a figure he was in French society. To its credit, Quills is successful in creating intriguing, if historically liberal, drama around the Marquis, and the result is an excellent film about creative freedom.
In Quills, the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) is serving time in an insane asylum, where an unorthodox priest, the Abbe du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, before he went crazy), gives his inmates a lot of independence. He allows the Marquis to continue writing, on the condition that his stories remain within the walls of the asylum. However, with the help of washmaiden Madeleine (Kate Winslet), he sneaks his manuscripts out of the asylum, where they are published for the masses. This, of course, gets the Abbe in trouble with the French government, who send Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to pressure the Abbe into resolving the problem the old-fashioned way: lots and lost of torture. Of course, the Marquis resists these new rules, though in the process he risks the lives of everyone in the asylum.
The film is based on the play by Doug Wright, who also wrote the screenplay, and it has a unique, Old Hollywood theatricality to it. Director Phillip Kaufman presents the film as such too, an explicit throwback to a time when many historical dramas came from plays. In fact, the film in general is very old-fashioned, following the basic blueprint used to create such films as Becket, A Man for All Seasons, and others. This isn't a bad thing, since the film is very well-made, with stunning sets and costumes, and a story dramatic enough to hold your interest.
Rush puts on a show
The performances, too, are excellent. Caine makes for an excellent villain, particularly one who enjoys the sadistic pleasure of torture. Phoenix, too, plays the Abbe as a man of God tormented by the temptations of the flesh, egged on by the Marquis to his breaking point. Its an excellent reminder that Phoenix is a fantastic actor, and that hopefully his recent breakdown will be revealed to be a hoax in his upcoming documentary. Winslet is absolutely radiant, reveling in the joy of being a part of something so taboo. But the true star here is Rush, who earned his Oscar nomination with a scenery-chewing performance. In Rush's hands, the Marquis is more than just a sexual deviant, but also a rebel who insists that he has the right to write his lewd stories (in fact, Rush seems to imply that maybe he's a sexual deviant because of his rebelliousness). Its a great turn from an astounding actor.
My problems with the film mainly come from the gross historical inaccuracies that plague the film, including the entire third act, but these can somewhat be forgiven since the beginning of film assures us that its not completely true. The film's final scene, too, feels cheap and a bit of a cop-out, given the way the characters were presented throughout the film. It almost single-handedly derails the entire film, but luckily there's enough good before it to present such a thing. Quills is definitely worth your time, especially if you enjoy a gripping historical drama.

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