Film review: Quills (2000), directed by Philip Kaufman
Based on a play by Doug Wright, Quills is the story of Charenton, an insane asylum in France, not long after the French Revolution. Locked up in his own cell with lots of luxuries is the infamous Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush). Even though he’s locked up, he’s still penning his scandalous stories.
What the Abbe du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who oversees the establishment, doesn’t realise is that the therapeutic writing the Marquis is up to is smuggled out of the asylum by one of the servant girls, Madeleine “Maddy” LeClerc (Kate Winslet), and taken to a publisher for printing.
One of these printed novels end up with the head of state (Napoleon?), who finds it scandalous and orders for the strict Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to be sent to the asylum to sort him out. The good doctor isn’t particularly virtuous, however. He has a young lady promised to him, who is in a convent waiting to come of age. He tires of waiting and takes the beautiful, young Simone (Amelia Warner) out of there, and is instantly the source of gossip. After all, she’s really too young to be the wife of anyone, let alone an old man.
The doctor wants no expenses spared when it comes to renovating their marital home, and hires a young architect (Stephen Moyer, pre his vampire days) to satisfy her every whim … pun intended.
Trying to quash the Marquis’s over-sexed tendencies, the Abbe decides to take away all writing material from the cell, but that doesn’t stop the compulsive writer. From starting out as a man who seems just like an outsider, a rebel, as the film progresses, it’s fairly clear that there’s an actual reason for the Marquis to be locked up. An interesting character, but not as interesting as Maddy.
Maddy lives at the asylum with her very nearly blind mother (Billie Whitelaw, Grace Poole in Jane Eyre ’96), and is part attracted and part repulsed by the Marquis, but they have a friendship of sorts. He’s trying to get into her knickers, but she’s not giving in to him. When not helping him with getting published, she is being taught how to read by the Abbe, who finds himself far too drawn to her. Even though he is a man of God, he is just a man, after all. (This wouldn’t have been an issue if he was a Protestant, I can’t help but think.) She’s just a young woman, curious about the world. Sadly, she’s also the object of one of the other inmates’ desires, a big brute who has “sex offender” written all over him.
If you’re after a film full of sex and violence (we get the word “sadism” from de Sade, after all), look elsewhere. There is the occasional reading from what the Marquis has written, but very little. There isn’t a lot of nudity (aside from when they remove everything from the Marquis, including his clothes), the attraction is more important. Crude gestures, yes, there are some of those.
On the whole, I thought the setting of an asylum sounded interesting, and I had heard of the Marquis before, and expected it to be a biopic. From what I can make out on Wikipedia, parts of this story are true. He really was declared insane and placed at Charenton, and Maddy was a real person – except in reality, they did have a sexual relationship … and she was only 13. Kate Winslet, obviously and thankfully, is a lot older than that.
What I got was a surprisingly good movie, the word “compelling” springs to mind. It showed the complexities of human emotion, the rawness of imagination and passion and how dangerous it can be for a writer to keep them from writing. The Marquis had lessons to teach his fellow inmates, and perhaps also us as viewers – to take a look at ourselves and make us think about what we find acceptable and not – and why that might be. Solid performances all around from a star-studded cast also helps bring up the score.
At least 4.5 out of 5 quills!