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"You vex me. I'm terribly vexed."
Joaquin Phoenix uses his best pick-up line on Kate Winslet.

2000, Fox Searchlight
All Rights Reserved

It's not that "Quills" (IMDb listing) is a bad movie. It's full of better-than-decent actors (Michael Caine, Geoffrey Rush). Director Philip Kaufman shows a great eye for period detail. And it definitely stands out in light of what some have called a lackluster year in film.

The problem is that the movie, a fictionalization of the asylum years of the Marquis de Sade, is just too damn earnest. It wants to say that art can't be judged by moral standards, but instead of making its point with, well, a feather, it makes it with a hammer. De Sade (Rush) is unquestionably the good guy here, albeit one with an unquenchable urge to write porn. And Caine, as the militant Dr. Royer-Collard, is clearly the villain — his curative methods, basically warmed-over medieval torture, are infinitely worse than anything described by the Marquis. (Predictably, Caine ends up personifying the perverse, hypocritical public figures who inhabit De Sade's prose.)

Toward the beginning of the film, de Sade is, though committed, living in pretty decent quarters, with wine, books and a feather bed in his cell. He also runs a pretty good scam smuggling his manuscripts out of the asylum with the aid of Madeleine Leclerc, a laundry girl played by Kate Winslet. But when the authorities get wind of his scheming, they send in the doctor to teach the Marquis a lesson, and the rest of the film falls like dominos — de Sade resists and Royer-Collard tightens the reins, de Sade whines and the doctor has his tongue cut out. In the end, one of them cracks, and it's not too hard to guess who.

"Quills" begins on a strikingly disturbing note — a potentially erotic opening-credit scene, narrated as a passage from de Sade, quickly transforms into a bloody public execution; the juxtaposition between the harmless pleasure of the written page and the depraved public's desire for bloody entertainment sets the stage for the rest of the film. The thing is, though, "Quills" never goes beyond that stage — it really wants to be of intellectually epic proportions, but for some reason it settles with introducing the same old questions about art and life.

Actually, "Quills" doesn't really contain questions at all — de Sade is, for all his superficially offensive qualities, never really questioned. Instead, he's just a cad, a dirty old man in contemporary parlance. Funny, and after you get past all the buggery threats, pretty likable. The fact that his writing provokes murder at the same time that it provokes sexual liberation is written off as an unfortunate consequence of art, but not one that we need to worry about — in short, the film is ideological, not intellectual.

Which is too bad, because, again, "Quills" has a lot of high points. Rush, within his tightly prescribed role, is excellent, as is Caine; an Oscar nomination for either or both should be in the offing. Winslet does a more than passable job at depicting a young woman caught between fear of and desire for the Marquis. And the costumes, for what it's worth, hit the spot, as do sizable chunks of the dialogue.

But not all the dialogue, and it's unfortunate that most of the really egregiously ham-fisted lines get shoved onto the one character of any real interest, the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). As the director of the sanitarium and a priest, the Abbe is torn between his administrative duties, his empathy for de Sade, and, in the end, his overflowing physical desire for Madeleine. Too bad that the crucial character, the one who wrestles with all the good and bad implications of de Sade's work (including, of course, his own awakened libido), deals with his problems by launching into a seemingly unending stint of stilted monologues. And Phoenix's performance is, at best, functional — outside of his well-paced scenes with Rush, his delivery is harsh and affected; his lines are the most didactic in the entire movie, and he does little to temper their blow.

"Quills" deals with a pretty controversial debate — art and all its social implications — but instead of presenting both sides of the issue, it sweeps aside questions and rams its point home. Art is, as they say, neither moral nor immoral, just good or bad. In its rush to make this clear, "Quills" forgets that films can be bad, too.

Filmfodder Grade: B-

Review courtesy Flak Magazine.

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