Philip Kaufman’s film Quills gives us the story of the last years of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), incarcerated in the mental hospital at Charenton, writing new novels at a furious pace and having them snuck out to his publisher by the lovely chambermaid Madeleine (Kate Winslet).
Young Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) runs the hospital gently and thoughtfully, hoping perhaps that de Sade will somehow give up his pornography and return to God; but the Abbé's nemesis, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a friend of the emperor, has other ideas and wangles an oversight position in order to impose his own barbaric ideas of treatment, specifically upon the Marquis.
That’s the film, with evil consequences for everyone, not excluding the audience, which must endure two hours of pre-programmed, by-the-numbers events at Charenton according to the script by Doug Wright, which derives from his play of the same name. Rush, one of the most versatile actors in film today, from his Machiavellian adviser to Queen Elizabeth to his mentally impaired pianist in “Shine,” here is confined in his (rather large and initially well-furnished) cell with nothing to do but rage and write furiously (the quills, get it?). The problem is that the script barely gives him an interesting line to speak. He ends up repeating himself, throwing tantrums, tempting pretty Madeleine, and generally making life miserable for the Abbé , thus inviting the doctor to take over and work his evil.
It is not a pretty sight, and it makes for a dreadful film.
Oddly, the facts of de Sade’s last years are quite different and much more interesting, particularly with regard to the strange relationship he had with his wife, barely included here. Had Mr. Wright only given us a sense of that life, he might have made a deeper and more powerful film. But in “Quills,” director Philip Kaufman (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Henry and June,” “The Right Stuff”) seems caught in a straitjacket: unable to move out of cell and corridor, trying to make the pallid writing suspenseful, he uses nothing but closeups of his actors, in an attempt, I imagine, to bring tension to the obvious.
The film comes to a lurid climax, in which horrid things are done to good people, not excluding those of us in the audience, and almost everyone dies or goes mad. Only the wicked doctor survives, to rule Charenton, with no doubt some message about the ineradicability of evil, but I for one didn’t get it. Geoffrey Rush was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work here, but I’m sure that even he would roll his eyes at such a misapprehension of what acting should be.