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With: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Malahide, Amelia Warner
Written by: Doug Wright, based on his own play
Directed by: Philip Kaufman
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content including dialogue, violence and language
Running Time: 123
Date: 09/02/2000

Quills (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Write Stuff

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It makes sense that brilliant San Francisco director Philip Kaufman would follow up his films The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Henry and June (1990) with another intelligent erotic film. Quills explores the world of the Marquis de Sade, a writer Henry Miller would surely have identified with. As the Marquis, Geoffrey Rush manages to balance madness, obsession, and brilliance with a fine thread tying it all together.

The Marquis is living in an insane asylum run by a sympathetic Abbe (Joaquin Phoenix) who lets him write in his cell. A virginal laundress (Kate Winslet) smuggles his writing out to be published, which causes all sorts of havoc (Napoleon himself is offended). So a repressed doctor (Michael Caine) is called in to become the new administrator of the asylum.

Written by Doug Wright based on his own play, Quills covers several episodes of sexual awakenings and sexual perversions, including an extraordinary one where the Marquis "writes" a new story by verbally passing it though the walls from inmate to inmate so that Winslet can write it down. The telling effects the different inmates in different ways; one lights a fire, and one sexually assaults Winslet. The film wants us to think about the various effects of erotic writing and where it crosses the line into pornography. It brings up and presents in a new way the ages-old argument of whether art reflects society or the other way around.

Though I admired Quills greatly, it lacks the sublime sophistication of Kaufman's earlier erotic works. I suspect that this is due to a first screenplay by Wright, and by inferior sound design and editing (alas, Walter Murch, who worked on The Unbearable Lightness of Being was not around). For some reason, the sound is designed to make us jump every time anyone bangs a door open. Nevertheless, Quills is a thoughtful adult movie that is a rarity in movies today. A must-see.

Fox's DVD is beautifully done, and Doug Wright's commentary track is animated and interesting (but where is Kaufman?). The disc contains three documentaries, none of which I was able to get through: they're done in the usual Entertainment Tonight format, designed to sell rather than enlighten. But the movie itself should provide delightfully disturbed repeat viewings.

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