Quills is the modernized story of the Marquis de Sade, whose steamy writings whipped France into a sexual fury in the late 18th century. And by modernized I mean that it has been told through the experiences of a lot of French people who speak English with British accents. But no matter, I'm willing to accept that everyone in France in 1800 spoke perfect British English, even if only because of Geoffrey Rush's brilliant performance. With every movie that he makes, I become more convinced that there is nothing he can't do.
In order to know virtue, as the Marquis explains, one must first understand vice. In Philip Kaufman's Quills, the focus is on the Marquis de Sade after his writing has taken him beyond the artistic freedom generally accepted in the 18th and 19th centuries, even to elite aristocracy like himself. It is a detailed exploration of the events that led him from being a social elitist to living almost three decades in prison, writing things that caused his keepers to make it so difficult for him to write that he ultimately uses his own blood and excrement for ink, and his clothing, the walls of his cell, and his own skin as parchment.
Luckily for the Marquis, at first anyway, there is something of an understanding priest in the Abbe du Coulmier, another wonderful performance from Joaquin Phoenix. An intensely religious man, Coulmier believes that the Marquis should be allowed to write, if only to purge himself of the sadism with which his head is filled and which would later be named after him.
Kate Winslet plays Madeleine, a laundry maid who smuggles the Marquis' writing out of the asylum so that it can be published, a fact which makes many people unhappy, but pleases others. The Marquis dips into the extensive world of the forbidden sexual taboos of the 18th and 19th centuries, writing extensively about them without a care in the world for propriety. One may wonder to what extent the Marquis' writings were such a hit because they were forbidden, or because of their lewd content, which may be described as guilty pleasures for the masses. Indeed, Larry Flynt was not working, so graphic pornography was something of a rarity.