Mightier than the sword

Writer's potency displaced but not denied.

EVEN IF MANY of us have never read a page of the Marquis de Sade, we invoke his name often enough, using the word "sadistic" to describe an individual who takes pleasure out of others' pain. Yet the term receives a kinder definition in Philip Kaufman's Quills, adapted by Doug Wright from his own Obie Award-winning play. The film portrays the notorious 18th-century author Sade as a witty, likable, and irrepressible scribe. Spewing sexy double entendres, Shine's Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush makes him the ultimate rebel during Napoleon's stuffy regime, a fallen bon vivant who dresses in a tattered silk suit and powdered wig even while confined—and celibate—in an insane asylum. When his pens are confiscated by the asylum's higher authorities, he protests, "My writing is involuntary, like the beating of my heart." Whatever you think of his books, you're led to sympathize. Here's an extraordinary man whose freedom of expression has been taken away.

QUILLS

directed by Philip Kaufman with Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Caine opens December 15 at Harvard Exit

The threat of censorship escalates while Quills revamps history in favor of a dramatic and entertaining story that's as fictional as Shakespeare in Love. One of the movie's best uses of poetic license is in the figure of the Abb頃oulmier (Gladiator's Joaquin Phoenix), the well-meaning priest in charge of the institution where Sade spent his final years. With cheekbones honed to cut butter, Phoenix is simply too gorgeous to be a priest. "I'm not a beautiful young prospect ripe for corruption," he tells Sade firmly, but the statement sounds more like an invitation—you wonder what he's wearing underneath his long black robe. In real life, Coulmier was a 4-foot hunchback; in the movie, he's a vital, sympathetic young man quietly struggling against the temptations of the flesh. Phoenix's restrained Abb頭akes such an excellent foil to Sade that he becomes a character of equal weight, finally winning the heart of busty chambermaid Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who helps to smuggle Sade's writings to the outside world.

Sade's nemesis is a psychiatrist (Michael Caine) who systematically administers a program of torture and deprivation to the writer. Still, no matter how harsh the punishment, Sade finds ways to write, and his lusty bedtime stories continue to thrill his fellow inmates and the reading public. Quills is a stylish and entertaining paean to Sade, not a biography. If the film sparks interest in Sade's actual life and work, all the better, but fittingly, it's the beautiful Madeleine who reminds us of the foul-mouthed author's actual legacy. Spurning Sade's salacious compliments, she scolds, "Oh, you! You talk just as you write!" In other words, Sade may speak of dirty deeds, but his actual, enduring conquests lie in ink.

 
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