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The infamous writer, the Marquis de Sade of 18th Century France, is imprisoned at Charenton Insane Asylum for unmentionable activities. He manages to befriend the young Abbé 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. The emperor Napoleon contemplates sending Dr. Royer-Collard to oversee the asylum, a man famed for his torturous punishments. It could mean the end of Charenton and possibly the Marquis himself. Written by
Emily H and Janette W
It's post-revolutionary France. Napoleon is in power. The Age of Enlightenment is in full swing, yet the remnants of the Dark Ages still linger to restrain the thinking of many a powerful monarch, religious leader and rank-and-file common citizen. In all areas of life, the barriers to freedom and self-expression are rapidly giving way, leaving traditional institutions and values fighting for their very survival. And this includes that most sensitive of all areas, the one that has, perhaps, caused more consternation for the race than any other in our history determining the role that sexuality plays in defining who we are physically, emotionally and spiritually. Long thought of as little more than a necessary evil, sexuality is suddenly starting to be reexamined in the light of other scientific and academic reassessments. Small wonder that at such a crucial moment in mankind's sexual awakening, a figure like the Marquis De Sade would emerge, a man whose name has since become synonymous with perversion, deviancy and licentiousness. It is this epic struggle between religion and nature for the soul of humanity that Philip Kaufman captures so brilliantly in his wickedly perverse, mordantly witty and brilliantly acted film, `Quills.'
Director Kaufman, working from a screenplay by Doug Wright (based on his play of the same name), chooses to start his tale almost at its end at the period when De Sade was already wasting away in an insane asylum, considered too perverted and dangerous in his ideas to be allowed to run loose among the general populace. Yet, it's hard to keep a creative genius down and De Sade has, unbeknownst to the priest who runs the facility, been regularly smuggling out manuscripts to publishers on the outside, much to the chagrin and delight of many elements of the French public. One of those least amused is Napoleon himself, who decides that he must take action in silencing this reprobate once and for all. He decides to send a `specialist' in mental health one Dr. Royer-Collard, a man more in tune with the techniques of the Spanish Inquisition than of modern medicine to take charge and bring De Sade to his senses. Wright's and Kaufman's other two main characters include the priest, The Abbe du Coulmier, who is keeper of the institution, and Madeleine LeClerc, a beautiful young devotee of De Sade's work who serves both as laundress and chief smuggler for the author and his works.
In many ways, the most interesting conflict turns out to be the one between De Sade and the Abbe, two men seemingly antipodes apart yet somehow able to find a common ground of mutual respect and understanding. On the one hand, we have a man who has completely thrown away all sexual inhibitions and indeed lives to not only experience every possible sexual pleasure but to encourage others to do so as well. On the other hand, we have a man who has chosen a life of chastity and celibacy, opting to completely shut down the sexual aspect of his life as a pious sublimation to God and yet neither extreme seems normal, healthy or practicable. In fact, near the end, De Sade suffers the torment of realizing that someone he cares for very deeply has become a tragic victim of one of his `ideas' run amuck, just as the Abbe, after years of repression, finds himself inching ever closer to the insanity that he is supposed to be curing in others.
Interestingly, the Abbe, the representative of the church that held the world in the grip of the Dark Ages for so long, is actually a beacon of enlightened reason compared to Dr. Royer-Collard, the self-ascribed `Man of Science.' Here is an individual actually aligned with the Church's Medieval methods, inflicting any form of excruciating physical and psychological torture on his patients to achieve their ultimate `cure' though we can see by the way he subtly abuses his own sixteen year old wife that `power' is, as always, the world's strongest aphrodisiac.
Special not must be taken of the superb performances by Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine and Kate Winslet. Each does a superb job in bringing these diverse and complex characters to vivid life.
In terms of art direction, costume design and cinematography, the filmmakers do a fantastic job in recreating this strange world of the past - capturing that startling admixture of piety and licentiousness that bespeaks the `dual nature in Man,' which has forever served as the basis for the epic struggle between religion and nature. In a world like the one we live in now - in which explicit pornography has found a comfortable and, indeed, quite lucrative niche - De Sade seems ever more a man ahead of his time. It was his misfortune to be born into a world not quite ready to accept the ideas he had to offer. Yet, had he been living in this century, perhaps we would never even have heard of the name De Sade at all. Perhaps he would be just another anonymous pornographer, using the camera rather than the written word to graphically illustrate his darkest sexual longings. Then again, who knows? Perhaps it would be he who founded a world famous magazine and set up a mansion dedicated solely to the propagation of male sexual pleasure. It is, in the face of `Quills,' a thought worth pondering.
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