There's always something so appealing about well-constructed movie villains. It's as if these villains depicted on screen have the licence to indulge in any sadistic act they desire, spurred on by the audiences' inability to behave in this matter in everyday society. Villains have the ultimate ego, and the audience can admire them due to their own jealousy. Movies are a world in which the anti-hero or villain can be just as loved as the hero, and this world is part of what makes cinema such a popular art-form.
Philip Kaufman's Quills contains such a villain in the form of the Marquis de Sade, played like a delicious vampire by the fantastic Geoffrey Rush. The Marquis is infamous for having the term 'sadism' named after him, and in reality was a deluded aristocrat who firmly believed that he had the right to commit murder in order for social pleasure and betterment. If you believe what Quills preaches, the Marquis was also a tortured literary genius maddened by his addiction to write. Often branded with the title of the man to possess "the most freest spirit of them all", the Marquis was a sexually obsessed man who wallowed in the depravity brought upon his powerless readers. A serial rapist, murderer and general swine, Quills chooses to omit most of these details and concentrate mainly on the battle between the Marquis and his battles with the French higher order concerning the lewd content of his writings.
Kept out of public harm in a mental asylum, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is still writing for therapeutic reasons. However, the young and naïve Abbe du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), is completely unaware that the Marquis has been smuggling his works to a publisher via a female laundry maid at the asylum named Madeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet), who is a big fan of the Marquis'. When Napoleon himself is angered by the continual publication of the Marquis' work, he orders a traditionalist physician named Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to visit the asylum and deal with the Marquis once and for all.
Quills isn't totally faithful to the audience and doesn't generally claim to be. It's obvious from the start that the film is a stage adaptation, as the characters do not seem to exist for a Hollywood mainstream audience. Yes, the Marquis de Sade is monstrous and vile (and toned down in comparison to his 'real' self), but we the audience aren't alienated from him, as the film seems to convincingly argue that one man's deliberate vulgarity is a stronger virtue than a nation's ignorance. Alongside a battle between the Marquis and Royer-Collard, the film also exhibits a battle between the positive methods of du Coulmier and the barbaric methods of Royer-Collard himself. It's as if there is an ideological battle, with de Sade himself being the battleground. Also, the film seems to heighten the grand scale of hypocrisy that seems to exist amongst the French higher order. De Sade is punished for writing lurid acts, even though they are based on the true exploits of Royer-Collard himself, particularly the sexual monstrosity he demonstrates with his very young bride.
Philip Kaufman is a fine director that seems to content to tell a story well without letting his own quirks overshadow that of the film in question. It's hard to believe that the same man has directed Quills, The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and the brilliant seventies remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, as they are all fine genre pieces that stand poles apart from each other. Kaufman realises that in order for Quills to work, the performance from Rush as the Marquis de Sade must be very strong and dynamic. In turn, he captures an Oscar nominated performance from Rush, in which de Sade is portrayed as a cackling madman blessed with a gift of literary potential he struggles to fully realise. This film is almost a twisted and grotesque literary cousin of Milos Forman's Amadeus, except in Quills, the 'Mozart' and 'Salieri' traits both occupy portions of de Sade's soul.
Supporting cast regulars Winslet and Phoenix are fine, but do not ever seem to suggest they can ever be anything other than good supporting actors despite Winslet's frequent flirtings with the A-list. Michael Caine is miscast as Royer-Collard, but still does enough to render his character arrogant enough to appear believable. The script by Doug Wright, based on his own stage play, is full of witty repartees and interesting set-pieces, but is overlong, and worthy of a few trims. Considering the many interesting pieces of information that have been omitted concerning de Sade's life, it's surprising that Wright has maintained many boring elements. Still, the fictionalisation of the Marquis sparks enough interest for one to seek further insight of the man's bizarre life.
Quills is far too unappealing a film in terms of subject matter for a mainstream audience, and isn't landmark enough to be considered a classic, despite the fine production values and superb central performance. However, it still is fascinating to watch if just for the guilty pleasures associated with you the viewer siding with such a truly terrible human being.
Academy Awards 2000
Academy Award Nominations 2000
Best Actor - Geoffrey Rush
Best Production Design - Martin Childs, Jill Quertier
Best Costume Design - Jacqueline West
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the picture transfer is exceptionally good with a strong sharpness in clarity and a general lack of grain and digital artefacts. The film isn't very colourful in its original form, and so many of the DVD colour tones are dim and washed out, as if possessing a misty exterior, but this isn't the fault of the fine transfer.
Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the sound mix isn't particularly aggressive due to the stage-play origins of the script, and yet it still has its moments of surround, in particular the more action-orientated sequences in the asylum. This Region 2 version drops the 2.0 mix featured on the Region 1, and a DTS mix is arguably not appropriate for such a film.
Menu: A nicely designed static menu with animated screen transitions, Quills is given a bloody red overtone and is backed with some production stills from the film.
Packaging: Presented in a transparent amaray with no fold-out booklet and a cover artwork almost identical to the Region 1 version. The chapter listings are printed on the reverse of the inlay card and are visible via the transparent amaray.
Audio Commentary With Doug Wright: Although recorded in a poor mono fashion, the commentary by writer Doug Wright is interesting to anyone wishing to understand the fictional/factual sequences of Quills. There are a number of pauses, and it's unfortunate that director Philip Kaufman wasn't available to add his own opinions and interpretations, but on the whole this is a beneficial extra to any fan of the film.
The Marquis On The Marquee - Featurette: This is an eight minute featurette concerned with discussing the screenplay of Quills by Doug Wright. The origins of Wright's play are mentioned, and interviews with the cast and crew and their thoughts on the Marquis de Sade are included. The running time is fairly short, but this is a featurette that manages to be mildly interesting.
Creating Charenton - Featurette: This is a brief, five minute featurette designed to illustrate how production designer Martin Childs designed the sets for Charenton and what inspirations he drew upon. Again, an interesting featurette, but still very short in terms of running time.
Dressing The Part - Featurette: This is a seven minute featurette focusing solely on the costume designs by Jacqueline West. This is slightly more interesting than the other two production featurettes, as West mentions how Kaufman was keen not to direct Quills along the conventions of a costume-drama, and how she utilised different traits of the characters when it came to designing their costumes.
Trailers & TV Spots: One trailer and one TV spot is featured, and both are featured in fullscreen and possess an annoying dance soundtrack to accompany them.
Still Gallery Of Production Artefacts: A stills gallery browsed via user navigation that contains many props and authentic letters/writings used in the production.
Fact & Film: An interesting text/picture based extra that offers factual insight into the many characters displayed in Quills.
A courageous yet vile film, Quills will serve as another highpoint in both Rush and Kaufman's careers and has been given a technically -strong DVD with some average extras. It's certainly one to rent first, but if you are a fan of the film then the DVD will prove to be quite a strong purchase.