[Screen It]


(2000) (Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet) (R)

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Drama: The infamous Marquis de Sade goes to any extreme to continue telling his sordid and sexually charged stories while imprisoned in a late 18th century mental asylum.
It's the late 18th century and the infamous French author, the Marquis de Sade (GEOFFREY RUSH), is imprisoned in a mental asylum overseen by Abbé Coulmier (JOAQUIN PHOENIX), a priest who's befriended the Marquis and extended him certain privileges not afforded to the other inmates, who include Cleante (MICHAEL JENN), who believes himself to be a bird; Pitou (DANNY BABINGTON) who grooms his imaginary locks; Dauphin (GEORGE YIASOUMI), a pyromaniac; and Bouchon (STEPHEN MARCUS), a hulking fellow who finds the Marquis' work highly arousing.

Despite his incarceration and isolation from his wife, Renee Pelagie (JANE MENELAUS), the Marquis continues to write and publish his erotic and sadistic works, thanks to the help of Madeleine LeClerc (KATE WINSLET), a virginal laundress who works with her mother (BILLIE WHITELAW), and enjoys the Marquis' work and helps smuggle it out of the asylum. His latest effort, "Justine," has made its way to Napoleon's attention and the emperor wants all copies of it burned and the author shot.

His followers don't do that, but they do send Dr. Royer-Collard (MICHAEL CAINE), a practitioner of torture-based rehabilitation, to perform his magic on the Marquis. Collecting the young bride, Simone (AMELIA WARNER), promised to him that he's never met, the doctor arrives at the asylum prepared to observe the Marquis before deciding what approach to take in attempting to cure him.

As Royer-Collard introduces his wife to the bedroom duties of marriage and gets a young architect, Prouix (STEPHEN MOYER), to refurbish a dilapidated estate for them, the Marquis stages a farce based on the rumors of their sex life. Despite Coulmier's objections that the theater and other literary efforts are therapeutic for the inmates, Royer-Collard orders them to be suspended.

Deprived of his ink and quills, the Marquis then sets out to continue writing, becoming ever more resourceful the more he's deprived of writing utensils as well as the belongings from his cell. From that point on, and as Madeleine gets into trouble for her relationship with the author when Charlotte (ELIZABETH BERRINGTON), a prim maid, turns her in, the Marquis continues to tell his erotic and sadistic tales any way he can, much to the dismay of both Coulmier and Royer-Collard.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
It's interesting how much it takes to shock people nowadays. While there are always those, especially in today's society and its politically correct trappings, who will be offended at what many others would consider mundane or inoffensive, it's surprising - and somewhat sad and/or disturbing - how much is tolerated today that only decades ago was considered outrageous and even scandalous.

For those too young to remember, Elvis (a.k.a. "The Pelvis") caused quite a stir in the '50s with those gyrating hips, so much so, in fact, that nervous TV executives ordered that he only be shot from the waist up. Nowadays, the stuff they show on MTV makes Elvis look like Saturday morning kiddie fair in comparison.

Likewise and years before that, Clark Gable caused an uproar when he uttered the infamous "d" word, and women were considered lewd and/or promiscuous if their bathing suits dared show their bare knees. In today's world of profanity-laden movies, music and everyday life where women in thong bottoms are often seen in public and on TV, such previously objectionable material wouldn't even warrant the bat of an eye.

All of which makes one wonder that if all of that was at one time scandalous but now commonly accepted, what will offend tomorrow's society once today's material becomes commonplace and no big deal. Just how far will people have to go to shock audiences, and will we ever hit the ceiling for that, where such provocateurs either stop trying to one-up their predecessors or where nothing will seem shocking anymore?

Those questions certainly would have been fascinating to the Marquis de Sade, who's best known to today's culture as the guy who inspired the word "sadism." A French novelist, playwright and author of philosophical treatises who simultaneously shocked and secretly delighted those in the 18th century with works such as "Justine," the Marquis preceded and obviously inspired the likes of Larry Flynt and Marilyn Manson by more than two centuries.

Now, his life - or at least the aura of it - is explored in "Quills," a mostly fictionalized tale that will likely offend those with low tolerance levels for such material as well as historians with the same regarding the acknowledged artistic liberties taken with the source subject. For those who enjoy well-made and fascinating films, however, you probably won't go wrong with this picture that's good enough that it may just earn a handful of nominations come award time.

That said, the storytelling approach by director Phillip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") and screenwriter Doug Wright (who adapts his stage play of the same name) - namely making up some of this story and combining or creating completely fictitious characters and events - will likely disappoint those looking for an in-depth, biographical examination of the real man.

While we do get to know the Marquis somewhat from a psychological and sociological standpoint - or at least we think we do as the "facts" are presented here -- we never really do from a historical one. While that may disappoint some viewers looking for a thorough examination of the man's life and what really made him tick, the filmmakers' fictionalized and time-compressed approach does alleviate an overriding and nagging problem that usually besets such biopics.

Namely, that's coming off as episodic, a momentum killing side effect that comes from attempting to cram too many years of history into too little actual screen time. Here, the resultant picture might not be absolutely true to history, and certainly won't be confused for being a cheery and uplifting picture. Yet, it's undeniably an often mesmerizing experience filled with some captivating performances.

Speaking of the aforementioned Mr. Flynt, this film does bear a striking thematic resemblance to Milos Forman's "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Both deal with pornographic provocateurs and the attempts - especially at the hands of the government - to shut them down and essentially put them out of business.

As such, both deal with creative freedom of speech issues, although the Marquis certainly didn't have a constitutional first amendment to back him up. As a result, he spent a great deal of his adult years in prison or asylums (in both real life and this film), and that's where Wright's story takes place. While the trappings of his stage play are still present to some degree, they aren't overly obvious and certainly don't distract the viewer or impede the narrative flow.

While some of that obviously stems from the way the filmmakers handle the material, much of it is due to the fine and often captivating performances. Not surprisingly, the most obvious, flamboyant and completely captivating one comes from Geoffrey Rush ("House on Haunted Hill," "Shine") who embodies the Marquis. Perfectly playing him with just the right combination of lunacy, smarts and decadence, Rush creates a compelling, if certainly less than likeable character, that will likely earn him some award nominations.

Michael Caine ("Miss Congeniality," "The Cider House Rules") similarly creates a mesmerizing and despicable character as the man who becomes the Marquis' archenemy, while Joaquin Phoenix ("Gladiator," "The Yards") continues to add to his recent, impressive array of performances playing the priest who's torn between religion and lust as well as his unique friendship with the Marquis and his duty to keep him under control.

Kate Winslet ("Holy Smoke," Titanic") is good as the virginal laundress who uses the Marquis' fictional work to allow her to remain chaste in the real world even if not in her imagination, while Amelia Warner ("Mansfield Park") is also good as the young bride whose passions are awakened by the same. Meanwhile, various performers, including Stephen Marcus ("My Beautiful Laundrette"), are believable as other patients/inmates in the asylum.

While the film clearly won't be for everyone's tastes and will likely offend some of today's viewers as much as the Marquis' original work did way back when, for those looking for a well-made and mostly captivating experience, this might be the film for you. We found it that way and thus rate "Quills" as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 5, 2000 / Posted December 15, 2000

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