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The infamous writer, The Marquis de Sade of 18th Century France, is imprisoned for unmentionable activities at Charanton Insane Asylum. He manages to befriend the young Abbe de Coulmier, who runs the asylum, along with a beautiful laundress named Madeline. Things go terribly wrong when the Abbe finds out that the Marquis' books are being secretly published. Emperor Napoleon contemplates sending Dr. Royer-Collard to oversee the asylum, a man famed for his torturous punishments. It could mean the end of Charanton and possibly the Marquis himself. Written by
Emily H and Janette W
Quills inspires a seemingly improper sense of affinity and a terrifying new definition of sin.
Quills is a delightfully unsettling account of the demise of the Marquis de Sade and those he brings down with him. The film presents viewers with all the evidence they need to identify the fallacies of society's separation of "good" from "evil" and "moralists" from "sinners." It subtly asserts that the values traditionally used to pass judgment are compromised by convention and religion, and that there is moral danger in accepting these values without question.
During the film, one form of sin is only replaced by another, which defeats its resistors and beguiles the rest by hiding behind a pretentious shroud of religion and convention.
Viewers are horrified to discover that they can actually identify with the marquis, whose name inspired the word "sadist" to describe those who derive sexual pleasure from violence. Most viewers' senses of morality are sullied by the realization that they are hanging on every twist of the plot, desperate to know what will next beset these wretched characters.
Based on historical fact, Quills catches up with the Marquis (Geoffrey Rush) during the twilight of his life, when he has already been sentenced to life imprisonment in the Charenton Asylum. No longer able to pursue the perverse sexual escapades that had landed him in the madhouse after decades of unspeakable offenses, he now purges his demons by writing. At the urging of the saintly, ever-tolerant and even-tempered Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the marquis describes his imagination's disturbing scenes on paper.
Trouble arises when one of his books, smuggled to a publisher by a sympathetic admirer - innocent laundry maid Madeleine (Kate Winslet) - catch the disapproving eye of Emperor Napoleon.
There is no escape from sin when the man sent to purify the Charenton, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), only seeks to replace it with intolerance and unimaginable cruelty.
True to the spirit of the film, the sets are imbued befittingly with gloom and grime, and the inhabitants of the Charenton are realistically ragged.
Rush and Winslet's performances as the marquis and Madeleine are stunning. The film's delicious impropriety is heightened by their chemistry, which is so potent as to be communicable to viewers.
The super-intelligent plot is unexpectedly circular, leaving viewers feeling as though they may well be next in line for the madness bred at the Charenton. Their fears are seemingly verified by he change they know the film has already inspired in them.
Far from resolutive, the only solace the ending holds for viewers is a sense of, "Aha, now I know," and a new way to evaluate the good in evil in themselves and others.
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