"It's not even a proper novel," Father Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) complains
to the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) about his book, "Justine." "It's an
encyclopedia of perversion!" The priest is the head of the mental
institution in which the Marquis is incarcerated in a rather sumptuously
furnished cell. "Justine" was written and smuggled out against Father
Coulmier's express orders.
In Philip Kaufman's QUILLS, which is fascinating and repelling at the same
time, Kate Winslet plays Madeleine, the washer woman who smuggles out the
Marquis's scandalous prose. At the price of one kiss per page, she gets to
read the words, which are so hot that they almost burn the page. (Actually,
yesterday's perversions are likely to seem silly, tame and obtuse today, as
it relies on cute euphemisms like "Venus mound.") In the movie, people
profess shock but read his works as fast as they can. "That's terrible,
too, too terrible," Madeleine's blind mother claims as she is read the bawdy
text. But when her daughter pauses, the mother exclaims, "Well, go on!"
The real sadist of the story isn't the infamous Marquis, but his new doctor,
Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), whom the emperor sends to oversee Father
Coulmier. The doctor believes that it is possible to torture patients to
sanity. There is nothing like being strapped into a chair and held upside
down under water to restore one's senses. The good doctor has a new, young
wife, Simone (Amelia Warner), whom he keeps caged like a bird. With bars on
her windows and locks on the outside of her bedroom door, she is kept ready
to be ravished at will by her husband without any worry that she will
escape. Or at least that's the theory.
The subject of the story, which takes many unexpected approaches, is about
obsessions. The doctor's number one desire turns out to be control. More
surprising is that what truly turns on the Marquis isn't so much sex or
violence, but the act of writing. Of course, all he wants to write about is
sex and violence. In a telling scene after his writing quills and ink have
been confiscated, he slices up his fingers and uses fingernails and blood as
substitutes. A man who knows no bounds, he turns to his own feces as an ink
substitute when that's all he has left.
Father Coulmier, who tries to understand and help the seriously deranged but
brilliant Marquis, argues with the doctor that the Marquis's writings are "a
purgative for the toxins in his mind." Needless to say, the doctor doesn't
buy this theory, although he sees no problem in personally profiting from
his prisoner's pen.
"How can we know who is truly good, and who is evil?" Madeleine asks Father
Coulmier, who replies, "We can't." QUILLS illustrates this vividly. No
matter how much the Marquis repulses us, we find ourselves drawn to him when
those more wicked than he abuse him. Rush makes him such an eminently
likeable rogue that we can't help but find ourselves secretly rooting for
him no matter how despicable he becomes. QUILLS is a fascinating and
sometimes bizarre motion picture. Perhaps its biggest surprise, however, is
how relatively tame it is. Think of it as a ribald ONE FLEW OVER THE
CUCKOO'S NEST with a script that it is correctly rated R and not NC-17. An
intriguing movie, it leaves you with a lot to ponder.
QUILLS runs 2:03. It is rated R for strong sexual content including
dialogue, violence and language and would be acceptable for older teenagers.
Copyright © 2000 Steve Rhodes