to enjoy quills, philip kaufman's film of Doug Wright's play about the Marquis de Sade's final years in the Charenton asylum, you have to ignore history. Almost nothing in this film actually happened.Yes, Sade was a patient/prisoner in Charenton for the last 11 years of his life. The asylum was managed by a priest named Coulmier. The marquis did have a relationship with a young laundress named Madeleine Leclerc, and he and Coulmier had a common enemy in the doctor Royer-Collard.
But at the time the story takes place, the marquis was actually 74, not the vigorous 50-year-old suggested by Geoffrey Rush, and Coulmier was his contemporary, not the romantic naif played by 26-year-old Joaquin Phoenix.
The laundress, played by Kate Winslet, didn't smuggle Sade's manuscripts out to his publisher's representative. In reality, she was his prostitute.
The film's controlling irony supposes that, while Sade was imprisoned for creating an (imaginary) world of untrammelled power and relentless sexual cruelty, in prison he finds himself in a place where people actually act out horrifying cruelties, mainly in the person of Michael Caine's vicious Royer-Collard.
The filmmakers try to have it both ways. On the one hand, the asylum seems to be a manifestation of Sade's malign imagination, an anticipation of the 20th century's concentration camps and totalitarian control.
On the other hand, there's Rush's electric portrayal of Sade as a kind of hypersexualized but benign Oscar Wilde who's been jailed for mere words.
The balancing act requires a certain defanging of both author and work; the little excerpts we hear are generally no saucier than John Cleland's Fanny Hill It would have been more courageous to go with the most outrageous passages of Juliette rather than the more delicate prose from Justine quoted here.
Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being) directs far too few films -- this is his first since 1993's Rising Sun. He's at his best with the icy malevolence of Caine, whose monstrous control is superior to his Oscar-winning turn in The Cider House Rules, and with Winslet, who manages yet another in a series of complex, contradictory women in another film that's unlikely to grab much public recognition.
QUILLS directed by Philip Kaufman, written by Doug Wright from his play, produced by Julia Chasman, Peter Kaufman and Nick Wechsler, with Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine and Billie Whitelaw. 123 minutes. A Fox Searchlight production. An Odeon Films release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 96. Rating: NNNN