Adapted by Doug Wright from his Obie-winning play, “Quills” is a fictional account of the marquis’ final years, when he was imprisoned at the Charenton insane asylum for publishing his obscene novels. An immoral aristocrat and spoiled genius, De Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is allowed to stock his well-appointed cell with sexually explicit art, a four-poster bed, wine, books, a desk and plenty of ink and quill pens. His high life results from the tolerance of a kindly young priest, Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), determined to give the marquis free rein to indulge his talents as a creator of perverse stories. De Sade does just that, penning his twisted novels and sneaking them out to be published via a young laundress (Kate Winslet) who is infatuated with his fiction.
When De Sade’s novel Justine appears in Paris, it creates a social shockwave that ripples all the way up to Napoleon, and the emperor dispatches Dr Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to take control of the asylum and silence the troublesome writer. Royer-Collard is the worst thing in the world: a sadist disguised as a moralist whom circumstance has endowed with some measure of power. Where the Abbé reaches out to his patients with understanding and humility, Royer-Collard simply tortures them until they relinquish their insane behaviour.
Thus begins a monumental battle of wills, a race to zero, as De Sade meets the doctor’s increasingly sordid violence with a determination to let no amount of deprivation or abuse still his voice. Geoffrey Rush’s larger-than-life performance of De Sade gains our sympathy even as we are revolted by his extreme and often perverse actions. Rush doesn’t overdo the character’s decadence or flamboyance, since he reveals small, subtle moments of genuine feeling (such as the moment his precious quills are confiscated).
Kate Winslet is impressive as the Marquis’ loyal supporter, and she and Rush attack their scenes with playful relish together. There's also fine support from Joaquin Phoenix as the humanitarian priest whose noble principles are rocked by the decadent charms of the Marquis. Michael Caine takes what could have been a predictable arch-fiend and turns him into a complex, firm presence - a steady rock who makes for quite a match against Geoffrey Rush's Marquis, though they share very few scenes.
With “Quills”, director Philip Kaufman has made the Marquis de Sade a poster-child for the freedom of expression. But the movie is far more complex than a simple liberal tract supporting free expression. “Quills” envisions the artist's imagination as an unstoppable force, one that cannot be controlled by traditional forms of punishment (when De Sade's pens and ink are taken away, he uses chicken bones and wine to write; later, he uses his own blood). “Quills” blurs the lines between art and being, and treats the act of creation as a compulsive part of existence, as involuntary as breathing.
The movie also suggests that real art - one unfettered by matters of taste or propriety - can be as dangerous as it is inspiring. In the wrong hands, it can be as combustible as a match to gasoline, and the movie plays out that possibility to a breathtakingly dark conclusion. “Quills” is a brilliant, adult movie. Highly recommended.