Cast: Geoffrey Rush (The Marquis De Sade), Kate Winslet (Madeleine), Joaquin Phoenix (Coulmier), Michael Caine (Royer-Collard), Billie Whitelaw (Madame LeClerc), Patrick Malahide (Delbené), Amelia Warner (Simone), Jane Menelaus (Renee Pelagie), Stephen Moyer (Prouix), Tony Pritchard (Valcour), Michael Jenn (Cleante), Danny Babington (Pitou).
Crew: Philip Kaufman (director), Nick Wechsler, Julia Chasman and Peter Kaufman (producers), Doug Wright (writer), Stephen Warbeck (music), Rogier Stoffers (cinematography), Peter Boyle (editor), Martin Childs (production designer).
Synopsis: The Marquis De Sade is a captive in Charenton Asylum for the Insane. He writes pornographic novels and has the pages smuggled out to a publisher by a laundry lass, Madeleine. The asylum is run by the Abbé du Coulmier, who despairs of De Sade. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte has De Sade’s latest book Justine burnt and sends Dr Royer-Collard to cure the author. In exchange for his services, the doctor is given a grand chateau and an architect called Prouix to help him renovate it. Royer-Collard takes a teenage orphan, Simone, from a nearby nunnery as his wife. De Sade hears about this and parodies the marriage in a graphic play performed by inmates for a public audience. Coulmier takes away the writer’s quills and ink, so De Sade writes in red ink on his bed linen with a wishbone. Royer-Collard discovers this and has the scribe’s cell stripped bare. So De Sade writes on his clothes, using his own blood as ink. The doctor has De Sade stripped naked and Madeleine flogged for her complicity.
Coulmier becomes obsessed with Madeleine. Inspired by De Sade’s writing, Simone seduces the architect Prouix. When they ran off together, Royer-Collard discovers one of De Sade’s books in Simone’s bed. The doctor tortures the author. But De Sade still finds a way to spread his words, whispering them to Madeleine through a chain of inmates. One of the insane sets fire to the asylum while another is inspired to cut out Madeleine’s tongue and drown her. Coulmier has De Sade’s tongue cut out as punishment. The writer uses his own excrement to write on cell walls. De Sade dies, choking himself to death on a crucifix rather than receive absolution. A year later, the asylum gets a new Abbé. Royer-Collard uses the inmates to publish De Sade’s writing, with the profits helping to rebuild Charenton. Coulmier is now an inmate, begging for a quill and ink to write his own story…
Quills was an award-winning play by Doug Wright. He spent five years developing a big screen adaptation, working with arthouse filmmaking studio Fox Searchlight. The script was offered to director Philip Kaufman, who was eager to work on the story. At the time America was gripped by a sex scandal involving then US President Bill Clinton, turning censorship, pornography and sexual hypocrisy into hot topics. The project was approved by Fox Searchlight with a budget of only $14 million.
Kaufman and his four leading actors (Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Caine) all agreed to take pay cuts to help the film stay within its limited resources. The film was shot in England, with the Bedfordshire estate of Luton Hoo appearing as Charenton asylum while studio work took place at Pinewood. Unusually, Quills was filmed almost entirely in sequence.
Caine was cast as the malevolent Dr Royer-Collard. ‘I really, really enjoyed that character because very rarely do I play a total villain,’ the actor told Venice magazine in 2002. ‘I can usually find some redeeming feature, but that man had no redeeming features!’ Caine was full of praise for the actor playing his on-screen nemesis: ‘Geoffrey Rush was wonderful to work with, as well. One of the best movie actors around.’
Rush was just as enthusiastic about the experience of working opposite Caine: ‘He’s a legend,’ Rush told Rough Cut in 2000. ‘He tells you great stories about the absurdity of the profession that he’s encountered over a 35-year period. But then, when the camera is on, it’s like galvanising white heat that you’ve only got to respond to.’
Caine admitted being uncomfortable at playing a sequence when Royer-Collard consummates his lust for teen bride Simone. ‘The only way we could accomplish that, her and I, was to laugh through the whole thing,’ he told the Toronto Sun in 2001. ‘At times when she grimaced [on screen], she was holding back laughter. It’s pretty embarrassing at my age to be doing that with a girl who’s young enough to be my granddaughter.’
Quills had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September 2000, before getting a limited release in US cinemas during November, rated R. Critics were positive, and the film grossed $7 million over the next six months. Fox Searchlight pushed the film for recognition in the end of year awards. Quills won the National Board of Review’s best picture award, but otherwise had to be content with Oscar nominations in technical categories and for Rush as best actor.
The film reached British cinemas in January 2001, rated 18. Reviews were muted, but Caine was nominated as British supporting actor of the year by the London Critics’ Circle. The movie grossed just over $1 million in UK cinemas. It was released on video and DVD in 2001.
Reviews: ‘The film lacks an edge of danger or excitement that might have brought the subject alive in more than a cerebral way.’ – Variety
‘A complex, often funny and vividly-told tale, Quills ultimately cannot make up its mind what it wants to tell us.’ – Empire
Verdict: For a film brimming with sex, violence and pornography, Quills is surprisingly uninvolving. Visually the source material has been opened up to great effect, but the story remains stage-bound. Characters debate creative freedom and the hypocrisy of civilisation without ever invoking your sympathy or wits. Rush revels in his grandstand role as De Sade, gurning and gurgling with glee. By comparison the other characters are bland and lifeless, trapped in an inevitable escalation of horrors. Caine struggles to find a focus for his role, unassisted by spending much of his time in an irrelevant subplot involving his teenage wife. Quills looks great, but is altogether less than the sum of its parts.