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Quills (2000): At the Bottom of an Inkwell, on the Tip of a Quill

Quills (Philip Kaufman, 2000)


The Marquis de Sade woos a scullery maid on the movie's poster.

“My glorious prose, filtered through the minds of the insane.”
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Philip Kaufman is a high-stakes Thoroughbred. Whereas the blue-collar nags run every week or two year-round, you see the big-name guys maybe once every three months. Kaufman, with the exception of the seventies (when he doubled his usual output), has made exactly two movies per decade since his directorial career began a half-century ago. Most of them are well worth the wait, but every once in a while he turns in something, well, less so (think Twisted here), which is one of the reasons it sometimes takes me a very long while to get round to watching a Kaufman joint. Case in point: Quills, which I have now, finally, seen fourteen years after its release. And a very good one it is, though now loaded with all of the necessary hindsight, it is perhaps quite a bit more intriguing than it would have been had I seen it in 2000.


Joaquin Phoenix and Kate Winslet in a still from the film.

“Oh, Abbe, it’s hard!”
“You don’t even know…”
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Loosely based on the last days of the life of thew Marqus de Sade, Quills gives us Sade (Shakespeare in Love‘s Geoffrey Rush) wheeling and dealing his way into being given writing implements and paper thanks to a progressive priest, the Abbe du Colmier (8MM‘s Joaquin Phoenix), who is willing to allow the Marquis a bit of what we would today call art therapy. Of course, he finds ways to get himself into increasing amounts of trouble with the asylum’s upper management, largely with the help of Colmier and washerwoman Maddy LeClerc (Titanic‘s Kate Winslet). Ultimately, of course, there is a confrontation, and the head of the asylum (Michael Caine) starts going to greater and greater lengths to try and break Sade’s will.

Geoffrey Rush mugs for upper management in a still from the film.

“Don’t mind me, I’m only the dentist.”
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I’m never really sure what I’m going to get from a Geoffrey Rush movie. Sometimes you get The King’s Speech, other times you get Mystery Men. It should be obvious by now that Quills is much farther along the left side of that sliding scale, at least in my estimation; Joaquin Phoenix, for all his antics (and all his showing up in movies like 8MM), is a very good actor when he turns his mind to it. Winslet, of course, brightens every corner she appears in, and the trio make for a winning combination. The obvious downside to this is how clean everything is. Every time I bring up this criticism in a movie it brings to mind Fulci’s Zombi 2, the medical center’s disgusting griminess that lends such an air of realism to pieces of that movie. You won’t find anything like that here, either in the set decoration or the depictions of the characters. The battle of wills between Sade and the good doctor at times feels like an inspirational movie rather than a fight to the death. In other words—could have been more than it is, most certainly, and without too much effort. But what we got is still well worth watching. *** ½ 



About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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