Quills is the modernized story of the Marquis de Sade, whose steamy writings whipped France into a sexual fury in the late 18th Century. And by modernized I mean that it has been told through the experiences of a lot of French people who speak English and with British accents. But no matter, I'm willing to accept that everyone in France in 1800 spoke perfect British even if only because of Geoffrey Rush's brilliant performance. With every movie that he comes out with I become more and more convinced that there is nothing he can't do.
In order to know virtue, as the Marquis explains, one must first understand vice. In Philip Kaufman's Quills, the focus is on the Marquis de Sade after his writing has taken him beyond the artistic freedom generally accepted in the 18th and 19th centuries, even to elite aristocracy like himself. It is a detailed exploration of the events that led from him being a social elitist to living almost three decades in prison, writing things that caused his keepers to make it so difficult for him to write that he ultimately uses his own blood and excrement for ink, and his clothing, the walls of his cell, and his own skin as parchment.
Luckily for the Marquis, at first anyway, is that there is something of an understanding priest in the Abbe du Coulmier, another wonderful performance from Joaquin Phoenix. An intensely religious man, Coulmier believes that the Marquis should be allowed to write, if only to purge himself of the sadism with which his head is filled and which would later be named after him.
Kate Winslet plays Madeleine, a laundry maid who smuggles the Marquis' writing out of the asylum so that it can be published, for which many people are not happy, but many others are. The Marquis dips into the extensive world of the forbidden sexual taboos of the 18th and 19th centuries, writing extensively about them without a care in the world for propriety. One may wonder to what extent the Marquis' writings were such a hit because they were forbidden, or because of their lewd content, which may euphemistically be described as guilty pleasures for the masses. Indeed, Larry Flynt was not working, so graphic pornography was something of a rarity.
There is a curious relationship between the Marquis and a physician named Royer-Collard, played by Michael Caine, who is assigned to law down the law with the Marquis and prevent him from writing anymore. The glee with which the Marquis mocks and taunts him are some of the best parts of this outstanding film. There is a great parallel between the two characters, as well. Royer-Collard pretends to be a moral role model, at the same time taking a wife who is young enough to be his daughter, possibly even his granddaughter, and treats the Marquis with exactly the same sadistic (if I can again use the term for the behavior for which the Marquis would later be named) behavior that he condemns that Marquis for writing about. Both men engage in many of the same practices, it's just that the Marquis makes no attempt and has no interest in hiding his interests in the pleasures of the flesh.
I think that the most important thing to remember about this movie is that it is able to deal with a person who's beliefs are, I like to think, below the moral compasses of most of the people who will watch the movie, but it's not about what he was writing, it's about the fact that he was writing at all. It's about his defiance in the face of a corrupt moral authority, his insistence on maintaining an artistic expression that was not well received but that was certainly therapeutic to him. Sure, his sanity is in question, to say the least, but as they say, genius is often associated with madness.
What a great coincidence, too, because so is Geoffrey Rush.