Directed by Philip Kaufman
Quills starts off with a wistful scene involving a young woman and a guillotine. There's actually some cinematic finesse in that opening set piece that raises hopes for an artful, humorous look at one of literary history's baddest of bad boys, the original Ol' Dirty Bastard, the Marquis de Sade.
But unfortunately, what follows is a messy and uninspired look at what should be a fascinating character.
The most shocking thing about this heartless piece of tripe is that the National Board of Review named it Best Picture of 2000. What? Come again?
Exercise In Fertility
The movie picks up with the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush, Shine) residing in the Charenton home for the insane. Since he's a celebrity of sorts, and a man of some social status, he has a "nice" room full of his sexual knick-knacks, a plush bed, books, and, of course, plenty of quills and parchment upon which to unload his flights of fantasy.
This hint at the special treatment of celebrities, along with the public's hunger for an artist's work after his death, and reality imitating art, are supposed to be timely themes in the movie, but they're included here to no real end. Ambiguity has its place, but the end result is 125 minutes of non-erotic eroticism and unpleasant attempts at adding shock value that just don't work.
Some have raised the argument that the movie is about freedom of speech. Those are the same people that were apparently only watching the "dirty bits" and dozed off during the other scenes.
This movie practically takes on an anti-freedom of speech position. How else can we interpret a scene of murder by a mentally ill inmate spurred on by de Sade's little tomes? And de Sade's internment is justified as he himself is shown as a man with a penchant for causing people harm.
Granted, de Sade was a complex individual, but it is unfortunate Rush's performance paints him as more a spoiled brat than a threat. After all, this is the guy in whose name the term "sadistic" was coined. The movie tries to make him out as merely a fanciful, dirty-minded writer, focusing more on clever euphemisms for various parts of the anatomy than on his more incendiary writing and habits.
Quills runs on a baser instinct. It's a cynical, conceited look at how human nature desires that which is banned or otherwise made inaccessible. Its attitude is, "This is perverse... and you know you want it."
Read on, dear reader.
The movie's biggest fault is in not finding a character with which the audience can relate. In doing so, it has placed itself in that rarified echelon of cinematic drivel, The Loser Movie. Quills is in the unenviable company of other over-rated cinematic dung-heaps such as Boogie Nights, Summer of Sam, and Natural Born Killers. Every character is a loser at the beginning of the movie and every character is a loser (or dead) at the end of the movie. No progress was made in defining the characters and no attempt was made to give them a heart and a soul.
As the priest in charge of the Charenton asylum, he's stuck in a hard place between his own fleshly desires, religious convictions, and political intervention. He's a tormented soul, but his own stubbornness (and a screenplay that has it in for him from the beginning) prevents him from being sympathetic, even as he winds up being punished with the rest of the sorry lot.
The drama finally falls apart in the third act as it takes on more of the mannerisms of a cheesy Hammer horror movie than a genuine, "important" film of and about art.
Admittedly, there are some genuinely funny moments of dark black comedy. But there isn't enough to make the movie feel like a whole. Instead, it is a hodge-podge of different ambitions and mixed messages.
Also, there is nothing particularly shocking, in this desensitized day and age, to put Quills over the top. Decapitations? They were done with greater aplomb in Gladiator. Sexual double entendres? This incarnation of the Marquis de Sade is just another Austin Powers, albeit the Marquis brings a larger vocabulary to the table.
Marquis de Dud
The movie tries to justify itself with its final line: "To know virtue, one must first know vice." While that's a fine "cover your butt" statement, it's not enough to make this a guilty pleasure. However, if watching people screw each other over figuratively and literally is your sport, then this movie is for you.
Quills' director, Philip Kaufman, seemingly always finds his movies shrouded in some sort of controversy. Among his best would rank The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He also collaborated on the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark, which some would argue is still his finest achievement.
Twisting the facts was the biggest criticism against The Right Stuff and it needs to be kept in mind that Quills is only a work of fiction, not an episode of Biography. The screenplay was written by Doug Wright, which he based on his own stage play.
Rush would have been better off if he had saved his turn at exposing the Full Monty for a movie with a little more meat.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.