If only Kaufman didn't feel obliged to lay on the hero-worship quite so thickly. Although screenwriter/playwright Doug Wright's curious perspective -- that Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was foremost a brilliant poet of the senses, and a vicious monster not at all -- remains chiseled into every scene, it would have behooved the director to take a few liberties with Wright's lovable libertine. Perhaps he could have spoken to Rush about toning down the cuddliness, or to Caine about employing at least half an ounce of humanity. It is odd that this story of depravity and martyrdom is painted almost entirely in thick strokes of black and white, without even the slightest flush of ambivalence. You know the drill: Religion and authority bad, sex and wankery good, blah, blah, blah. Technically, it's an impressive piece of work, but in Kaufman's hands, the foul marquis becomes as trite as a wild horse in a teenage girl's sketchbook: noble, glorious and incapable of unpleasantness.
The action centers upon Charenton Asylum, in the years immediately following the Reign of Terror, when, by an obscure edict forgotten by most historians, Napoleon commanded all French citizens to speak English for the audience's comfort and enjoyment. Leading these linguistic slaves is the Marquis de Sade, a bad boy and good writer persecuted throughout his life for such trifles as rape and murder. Having endured years of imprisonment, during which he purportedly witnessed the deaths of thousands by guillotine, he emerged to become his era's most poetic and prolific smut-peddler, until Bonaparte arrested him again and threw him into the relative comfort of the asylum for his remaining years. When we meet the marquis, dusty and foppish in powdered wig and topcoat, he inhabits his lavish Gothic cell as a master of his craft, churning out "naughty little tales guaranteed to stimulate the senses." Deprived of his freedom and slowly succumbing to the brittleness of advanced age, his inkwell and beloved quills become his most intimate link with the world, outside and inside.
A hot-blooded chambermaid named Madeleine (Kate Winslet) shares a mutual fancy with the marquis and, possessing a key to his ominous door, takes to smuggling out his stories along with the dirty linen. While the benevolent young abbé, Simonet de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), runs his asylum with compassionate attention to the special needs of his charges, his sexual denial and countless responsibilities keep him from noticing that his establishment is ground zero for the pornographic bee in Napoleon's tricorn. To apply a firmer hand to the dissolute dandy, Antoine Royer-Collard is dispatched to Charenton. An alienist and expert in devices of medieval torture, the doctor does not approve of the abbé's lenient methods of therapy. Complicating matters, the doctor has plucked a young orphan (Amelia Warner) from a nunnery to function both as his wife and as a receptacle of frustration; and who better to be turned on by the marquis's stories, to set in motion these rickety wheels of retribution?
To be sure, Kaufman has a great talent for exploring wanton appetites and sexual disparities, as evidenced in his adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and, of course, in the diaries of Anaís Nin. However, in a culture in which the infidelities of Bill Clinton and Hugh Grant have only enhanced their public stature and in which Larry Flynt's clarion call of "relax -- it's just sex" seems fairly well embraced by the masses, the director now comes across as an old-fashioned hippie, bellowing for free love. True, Quills pushes buttons and tickles us with its dark prurience, but since its central conflict is so glaringly obvious, its protagonist so immensely unappealing, the themes lose much of their impact.
The strength of the project emerges from its exceptional cast and impeccable design. Phoenix is the surprise star of the piece, adding yet another role to his impressive résumé. Although Rush commands attention, his resentful pound-of-flesh antics pale in comparison to the intimate scenes he shares with the hungry yet restrained Winslet. Caine is a perfect villain -- too perfect, in fact -- yet all his attempts to woo his young charge with Peruvian marble, ceiling beams from Provençe and a trompe l'oeil over the ballroom do not explain why the girl does not even flinch when he attacks. Even this glaring improbability is nearly swallowed up by the sumptuous production design by Martin Childs (Shakespeare In Love), who provides the stage for this battle of vice and virtue.