In assessing the merits of Quills, the lusty new feature by director Philip Kaufman (Henry & June), it's tempting to seek correlative characters from popular movies to illustrate just how radical this business is not. In Kaufman's film -- affectionately constructed upon a screenplay by Doug Wright, who adapts his award-winning play -- we discover a fairly standard dichotomy: Geoffrey Rush is the Marquis de Sade, a pouty artist; Michael Caine is Dr. Royer-Collard, a seemingly upstanding manipulator of psyches. Tweak the universe a bit, and you've got Magneto and Dr. Xavier from X-Men. Add songs and eyeliner, and you've got Frank N. Furter and Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror. Envision soft-core Dr. Seuss, and you may even see the Grinch and Cindy Lou Who. Basically, beneath the rollicking performances and passionate execution, what we have here is yet another tale of the abused, misunderstood outsider being assailed by the heartless tormenter. Congratulations to the one-billionth entry.
If only Kaufman didn't feel obliged to lay on the hero-worship quite so thick. Although Wright's curious perspective -- that Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was foremost a brilliant poet of the senses and a vicious monster not at all -- remains chiseled into every scene from start to finish, it would have behooved the director to take a few liberties with the playwright's lovable libertine. Perhaps he could have spoken to Rush about toning down the cuddliness, to Caine about employing at least half an ounce of humanity. It is odd that this story of depravity and martyrdom is painted almost entirely in thick strokes of black and white, without even the slightest flush of ambivalence. You know the drill: religion and authority bad, sex and wankery good, blah, blah, blah. Technically, it's an impressive piece of work, but in Kaufman's hands, the foul marquis becomes as trite as a wild horse in a teenage girl's sketchbook: noble, glorious and incapable of unpleasantness . . . apart from Rush's abundant nude scenes, anyway, which truly allow us to share his character's suffering.
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The action centers upon Charenton Asylum, in the years immediately following the Reign of Terror, when, by an obscure edict forgotten by most historians, Napoleon commanded all French citizens to speak English for the audience's comfort and enjoyment. Leading these linguistic slaves is the Marquis de Sade, a bad boy and good writer persecuted throughout his life for such trifles as rape and murder. Having endured years of imprisonment, during which he purportedly witnessed the deaths of thousands by guillotine, he emerged to become his era's most poetic and prolific smut peddler, until Bonaparte arrested him again and threw him into the relative comfort of the asylum for his remaining years. When we meet the marquis, dusty and foppish in powdered wig and topcoat, he inhabits his lavish, Gothic cell as a master of his craft, churning out "naughty little tales . . . guaranteed to stimulate the senses." Deprived of his freedom and slowly succumbing to the brittleness of advanced age, his inkwell and beloved quills become his most intimate link with the world.
A hot-blooded chambermaid named Madeleine (Kate Winslet) shares a mutual fancy with the marquis and, possessing a key to his ominous door, takes to smuggling out his stories along with the dirty linen. While the benevolent young abbé, Simonet de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), runs his asylum with compassionate attention to the special needs of his charges (particularly the marquis), his sexual denial and countless responsibilities keep him from noticing that his establishment is ground zero for the pornographic bee in Napoleon's tricorn. To apply a firmer hand to the dissolute dandy, Antoine Royer-Collard is dispatched to Charenton. An alienist and expert in devices of medieval torture, the doctor does not approve of the abbé's lenient methods of therapy, which include allowing the marquis to write and direct plays for the cast of gibbering inmates. Complicating matters, the doctor has plucked a young orphan (Amelia Warner) from a nunnery to function as both his wife and as a receptacle of frustration; and who better to be turned on by the marquis's stories, to set in motion these rickety wheels of retribution?
To be sure, Kaufman has a great talent for exploring wanton appetites and sexual disparities, as evidenced in his adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and, of course, in the diaries of Anaïs Nin. In a culture in which the infidelities of Bill Clinton and Hugh Grant have only enhanced their public stature, however, the director now comes across as an old-fashioned hippie, bellowing for free love. True, Quills pushes buttons and tickles us with its dark prurience, but since its central conflict is so glaringly obvious, its protagonist so immensely unappealing, the themes lose much of their impact. As his treatise is very unlikely to "make the angels weep and the saints all gasp for air," perhaps Kaufman will be aghast to discover that Quills is hardly revolutionary -- merely quaint.
The strength of the project emerges from its exceptional cast and impeccable design. Phoenix is the surprise star of the piece, adding yet another role to his impressive résumé. Although Rush commands attention with all his strutting and fretting, his resentful pound-of-flesh antics pale in comparison to the intimate scenes he shares with the hungry yet restrained Winslet and, even more, with his wife, Jane Menelaus, as the marquis's estranged spouse. Caine is a perfect villain -- too perfect, in fact -- yet all his attempts to woo his young charge with Peruvian marble, ceiling beams from Provence and a trompe l'oeil over the ballroom do not explain why the girl does not even flinch when he attacks. Even this glaring improbability is nearly swallowed up by the sumptuous production design by Martin Childs (Shakespeare in Love), who provides the stage for this battle of vice and virtue. In sum, Quills is bound to titillate 'em in the Bible Belt, but elsewhere, it's likely to summon little more than a few Oscars and appreciative yawns.