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 (a shame that that didn't come to pass; just imagine the inspired casting of Caine as the latter). 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 thickly. 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.
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, outside and inside.
A hotblooded 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. ("My glorious prose, filtered through the minds of the insane," murmurs the marquis near the film's bitter end. "Who knows, they might improve it.") Complicating matters, the doctor has plucked a young orphan (Amelia Warner) from a nunnery to function both as his wife and as a receptacle of frustration; and who better to be turned on by the marquis' 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, and in which Larry Flynt's clarion call of "Relax -- it's just sex" seems fairly well embraced by the masses, 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.
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