Brimming with sexual intrigue, madness, and repression, Quills comes as a bracing tonic for another seasonal overdose of sugarplum sentiment. Shirking the biopic format for a fruitful mix of fact and fiction, it focuses on the last months of the Marquis de Sade, who's smuggling his tawdry manuscripts out of the Charenton asylum. His accomplice is the buxom laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who steals the papers away with the rest of the Marquis's dirty laundry. Their relationship isn't all business, however: "You have a key--now slip it through my tiny hole!" hisses the elegantly bedraggled Marquis, demanding a visit.
With ample opportunities for kinky bons mots and louche double-entendres, Quills makes clear from its first moments that it's not another one of those ponderous, self-consciously transgressive sex flicks. Instead, director Philip Kaufman (auteur of such tony erotica as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry and June) and screenwriter Doug Wright (who adapted Quills from his Obie-award-winning play) focus on telling a rollicking good story--while also managing to fold in less titillating themes of social control, censorship, and freedom of expression.
The intrigue flickers to life immediately, with the anonymously published Justine scandalizing France. An outraged Napoleon, suspecting the Marquis, decides against executing the man (that would only create a martyr), choosing instead to make his life hell by means of a "cure." He dispatches the dastardly Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to oversee Charenton, where the benevolent Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) employs art and self-expression as palliatives for his mentally unstable charges (and resists his less-chaste impulses toward Madeleine). The narrative moves along with such brisk, almost giddy energy that one scarcely notices the embers of destruction smoldering in the background. Suffice it to say that the asylum--a fairly pleasant place, whose residents put on plays for the local nobility--devolves into a true madhouse.
It doesn't take a lit student to draw the neat triangular relationship between the doctor's moral conservatism, the abbé's liberal humanism, and the Marquis's libertinism. The first two (naturally) repress their perversions, demons, and hypocrisies, while the dissipated Sade lives to expose them. Moreover, all three revolve around Madeleine. Young and impressionable, she represents the amorphous, unpredictable "audience" that moral crusaders wring their hands over and libertines would ostensibly corrupt--and yet, as played with earthy verve by Winslet, she's guided by her own desires and motivations. Given the Marquis's charisma, it's easy to see how she is thrilled (though hardly turned on) by him: She relishes reading his tales to her friends, but resists becoming his sex slave. In other words, art (even if your definition includes smut) can inspire, provide escape, and give pleasure and meaning to life, but it can't overwhelm a person's own sense of self or judgment. (Or can it?)
Despite all its thematic machinations, Quills doesn't sacrifice narrative to drive home its messages. Even without the sex, the plot is simply too juicy to get preachy, larded as it is with gossip, black comedy, and good old Gothic chills. And then there's Geoffrey Rush, who could read a software manual and have the audience on the edge of their seats. His multifaceted Sade--control freak, cocky egomaniac, pathetic louse, satirist supreme, and, perhaps most important, a man whose rage sets him on the edge of madness--is ferociously, horrifically seductive, playing to what is probably his most mainstream audience yet.
I'd imagine that the stage version of Quills was grounded in witty wordplay and philosophical inquiry. As a film, however, Quills has it both ways in the best of ways: It revels in scandal, gore, and sensuousness while offering up a brainy feast for thought as wide-ranging as Sade's notorious sexual appetite.