Quills

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Quills

At a key point during 1996's overrated The People vs. Larry Flynt, the Hustler founder turned First Amendment crusader remarks that if freedom of expression can extend to a "scumbag" like himself, it can extend to everyone else, too. He makes a valid point, but the film cheapens it by glossing over the scumbag part, turning Flynt into an irreverent hero while ignoring the damage his protected actions may have wrought on others. By all accounts, the Marquis de Sade's behavior was far more detestable than Flynt's—his very name, after all, inspired the word "sadism"—but to advance a similar cause, Philip Kaufman's disappointing Quills also stacks the deck too much in its protagonist's favor. The version of de Sade that emerges from Doug Wright's script (based on his play) and Geoffrey Rush's wild-eyed, scenery-chewing performance is not the privileged aristocrat who tortured and brutalized the less fortunate for his sexual gratification. Instead, his perversity seems tame and vaguely non-threatening, just lively enough to feed his endless supply of bon mots, but not enough to turn off the blue-haired ladies in the audience. Quills champions de Sade as a restless creative artist who was made to suffer throughout his life for his almost involuntary need to put his darkest impulses on the page. From the opening shots of a sopping, overworked guillotine in 1795 Paris, it argues that French authorities were the real sadists. Set in Charenton, the insane asylum where the author spent the last years of his life, Quills shows him in a well-appointed cell under the watch of benevolent priest Joaquin Phoenix, who views de Sade's writing as a form of therapy. With the help of virginal laundress Kate Winslet, de Sade's work gets smuggled to the black market, and its popularity enrages Napoleon, who dispatches alienist Michael Caine to employ his far more barbaric notions of therapy. There's perhaps no director in Hollywood better equipped to handle a de Sade biopic than Kaufman, a consistently intelligent and graceful stylist who specializes in literate eroticism. But the deft touch he brought to The Unbearable Lightness Of Being and Henry & June only partially combats the oppressive ugliness of Charenton, and his sense of irony fails him, especially during a ridiculous scene in which it's literally shoved down a person's throat. Due to a handful of sharply written scenes and the uniformly fine supporting performances—Phoenix, in particular, is superb—Quills remains watchable and entertaining. But by soft-pedaling de Sade's atrocities in the advance of literature, the film's attack on censorship seems weak and almost cravenly agreeable.

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