Quills Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the Region 1 DVD release of Quills.

The Film

‘Quills’ was released in the US at the end of last year to excellent reviews but no box office interest. This was partially because it was overshadowed by ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Traffic’, but also because it’s one of the most unapologetically vile films ever made by a mainstream Hollywood studio. This might either be a recommendation or a warning, depending on your sense of humour, but it can only be described as the most twisted ‘Carry On’ film ever made.

The plot is comparatively simple. The Marquis de Sade (Rush) is confined to the asylum at Charenton after his books have caused outrage throughout France. However, with the assistance of the laundrymaid Madeleine (Winslet), he continues to publish his work, much to Napoleon’s dismay. Therefore, the wicked Dr Royer-Collard (Caine) is sent to the asylum, much to the dismay of Abbe Coulmier, the priest running it (Phoenix), with the intention of silencing de Sade. From then on, the film becomes a witty pastiche of de Sade’s own literary style in describing his own life. The same technique was used in ‘Shakespeare in Love’, but without the same effectiveness and biting wit.

The performances are strong across the board. Rush is the standout here, unsurprisingly, managing to bring pathos and a sense of buried humanity to de Sade throughout all of his depravity. Winslet gives her usual sparky performance, even if her ‘working class’ accent is more like a bad imitation of an Eastenders cast member than a French peasant. Caine is camply menacing as the wicked doctor, Phoenix is hand-wringingly earnest as the priest tormented both by de Sade’s excesses and by his forbidden love for Madeleine, and Patrick Malahide does his best Charles Hawtrey imitation in a small part.

This is definitely not a film for everyone, partly because of the subject matter, but also because of the execution. Although Philip Kaufman directed, this is one of the few films where the script is more crucial to the film’s success, and Doug Wright’s writing (based on his play) is absolutely brilliant throughout, inserting black humour at the most unlikely moments. However, the subject matter necessarily includes just about every kind of perversion imaginable, including necrophilia, paedophilia, fecophilia, sodomy, masturbation, rape, fellatio and Michael Caine in a nightshirt. It is to the film’s credit that it never becomes unwatchably grim, but it’s not exactly a good Saturday night out for all the family. Highly recommended, but with the proviso that this will not be to everyone’s taste!

The Picture

Fox had produced a beautiful anamorphic transfer, framed at 1.85:1. Given that the film is often set in darkness and half light, strong colours are needed to make some scenes visible, and the transfer does a fine job of enhancing the clarity of many of the scenes in the asylum. The only problem is some minor grain is present in the early scenes, but this is hardly a major issue at any point. A good test for a disc of this type is whether the dark colours merely look black, or if the transfer is strong enough to distinguish between the different colours. One glance at a typical chapter, ‘The Doctor’s Bride’ (chapter 7) confirms that the transfer does indeed manage to differentiate these things. A fine effort.

The Sound

A very restrained 5.1 mix here. The moments where it gets the biggest workout are in the opening scene, set in revolutionary France (actually a slightly CGI’d Oxford), and in the asylum riot in chapter 15. In both of these scenes there is some use of the rears, and a sense of the sound being spread across the speakers. However, for a very dialogue-based film such as this, it feels largely incidental to have this particular mix, and for most of the film the Dolby Surround option is as useful for one’s enjoyment of the film’s soundtrack. There is also a French option provided, for those who find it amusing to hear dialogue like ‘You have stolen my heart, as well as a more…prominent organ’ spoken by a gruff Frenchman, rather than Geoffrey Rush.

The Extras

Although not a special edition from Fox, there are some nice extras here. The main one is the commentary from Doug Wright, the screenwriter. Personally, I always prefer commentaries about the film’s themes and ideas to simple descriptions of how it was hard to film X, and Wright provides an intelligent and witty discussion of both the film’s production and de Sade’s own life. It helps that he is one of the leading experts on de Sade, and that he is able to sustain himself well over two hours. This is a highly enjoyable commentary, and well worth a listen.

There are also three featurettes, each running around 8-10 minutes. The first, and best, is ‘Marquis on the Marquee’, a short making-of which manages to pack in a lot of information, including a very earnest Joaquin Phoenix declaring that Quills is the best film he’s ever been in. (Forgotten a little film called Gladiator, Joaquin?). The other two are short pieces on the film’s costumes and set design, which are somewhat take it or leave it affairs. The usual round of trailers, TV spots, cast and crew biographies and a small still gallery follow, although there is a small but interesting section entitled ‘Fact and Film’, which points out a few of the differences between the film and de Sade’s actual life. A good, if not great selection.


The sort of film that is always fated to be ignored or forgotten, Quills is nevertheless a thought-provoking and challenging exploration of one of the most infamous ‘literary’ figures ever. This really isn’t the sort of film to pick up if you simply fancy seeing some nudity and sex, nor if you expect a wittily sedate biopic. However, this is certainly one of the best films I’ve seen in the last six months, and is highly recommended for those of a strong disposition.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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