One of the hallmarks of a quality director is that his films fascinate even when they fumble. Take Philip Kaufman. Whether he soars (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), slums (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Wanderers) or stumbles under lofty ambitions (Henry and June, Rising Sun), Kaufman shows a keen intelligence. Quills, deftly adapted by Doug Wright from his fuck-the-facts play about the Marquis de Sade, is a Kaufman high-wire act. Literate, erotic and spoiling to be heard, Quills offers the full-out exhilaration of watching artists work without a net.
Geoffrey Rush is scandalously good as the marquis who put the Sade in sadism. After spending the last decade of his life locked up in the asylum at Charenton, France — a ploy devised by Napoleon to keep the world safe from this aristocratic pornographer — Sade died in 1814, leaving a violently rapacious literary legacy, including 120 Days of Sodom. Sade was one sick twist, and the film wisely refuses to paint him otherwise.
The topic here, as it was in Milos Forman's The People Vs. Larry Flynt, is free expression, and since we're all fresh from an election featuring censorious bloviators, you can't argue with its relevance. Sade is locked in a cell decorated like a salon featuring erotic art. His overseer is a humane priest, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who views writing as a way for Sade to purge his impure thoughts but forbids him to publish. It's Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a bodice-filling laundress, who sneaks Sade's scribbles out to a printer. That's when a furious Napoleon sends in Dr. Laura, or in this case Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine). Caine has a ball skewering this hypocrite who condemns all things sexual while drooling over his virginal teen bride (Amelia Warner).
Kaufman mines Wright's screenplay for every comic and carnal nugget. And the actors are exceptional. Winslet brings sass and spine to the role of an innocent peasant who glories in Sade's lusty prose as she pines for the celibate Abbe. And Phoenix, on a roll this year with Gladiator and The Yards, excels at making the priest a seductive figure — a neat trick considering the real Abbe was a four-foot hunchback. Winslet and Phoenix generate real fire, notably when Abbe dreams of ravishing Madeleine on the altar.
Thill, the film belongs to the volcanic Rush. When Sade's quills are removed, he writes with red wine, then blood, then his own feces. In a striking scene, Sade dictates a story to Madeleine by using his fellow loonies to pass along, cell to cell, each salacious sentence. Quills doesn't cheat; its anti-censorship argument isn't blind to the dangers of porn being censored. Kaufman puts flesh on what could have been too cerebral a conceit. The result is a savage comedy of sexual extremes; the barbed laughs draw blood.