Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Quills' Mixes Shock and Commentary

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Quills' Mixes Shock and Commentary

Article excerpt

Call it a sign of the new millennium, but 2000 has given us no fewer than two new movies about the Marquis de Sade, one of the most notorious miscreants of the past few centuries.

"Sade," a French production, is a rather tame affair that hasn't yet found American distribution. But the more abrasive "Quills" is opening with a Hollywood-style flourish, evidently meant to offset the picture's unsavory content by calling attention to its respected stars. They are eccentricity specialist Geoffrey Rush as the aging antihero, "Titanic" veteran Kate Winslet as the laundress he loves, Joaquin Phoenix as the priest who runs the asylum where he's incarcerated, and Michael Caine as the doctor who aims to cure him but may secretly be as sadistic as the Marquis himself.

Directed by Philip Kaufman from Doug Wright's screenplay, "Quills" is designed to strike different moviegoers in different ways. In many respects it's an exercise in Grand Guignol grotesquerie that presents the Marquis and company in the sort of self-consciously lurid manner associated with horror pictures. It's also a deliberately toned-down account of the Marquis's true artistic and intellectual ideas, abridging them so much that they're hard to recognize at times.

This double-faced approach is a clever compromise, allowing some spectators to praise the picture's blunt naturalism while others defend it as "only a movie" and find solace in its fundamentally conservative view of art's ability to stir up a society's most evil impulses.

Still, you can't help wondering why the Marquis's story is worth telling at all if it isn't worth telling accurately. If the actual transgressions of his life and work were laid bare on the screen, the result would hardly be a studio moneymaker. But it might be a useful lesson in the raging horrors that swept through European culture during an 18th-century epoch so momentous that its influence is still felt on both sides of the Atlantic. …

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