I’m gonna tell you right off that bat that this review is biased. I fucking LOVE Quills. I’ve probably seen it about a dozen times or more. Not only do I own the DVD, I also own the soundtrack and a copy of the play the film is based on. As far as I’m concerned, Quills is one of the greatest movies ever made. It has it all! Sex, violence, books/writing, Joaquin Phoenix as a priest tormented by lust…I don’t see how anyone could not think that this movie is the shit.
Quills is loosely based on the life and writings of the Marquis de Sade. Quick history lesson: Sade was a French nobleman who wrote satirical, blasphemous pornography (his most famous works are probably Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue and Juliette, or the Prosperities of Vice) and spent most of his adult life in prisons or insane asylums, where he continued to write and smuggle out his work. Essentially, his stories are filled with brutal depictions of violence, rape, and perversions so outlandish and absurd, they’re actually quite funny to read (at least to me, but then, I have a pretty sick mind). In between the scenes of orgies and murder are long philosophical diatribes about how God doesn’t exist and the strong will conquer the weak and all that fun stuff. Sade was nuts, ok? But his stories are like car accidents: you can’t help but gawk, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
Quills takes place during France’s Reign of Terror in the late 1700’s. Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is an inmate of Charenton, an insane asylum run by the progressive, kindly Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). Coulmier believes that art, music, and creative pursuits can cure, or at least alleviate the symptoms of insanity, and so he encourages the Marquis to write his filthy stories. “Purge these thoughts of yours on paper,” he says, “Perhaps they’ll govern you less in life.” The idea that reading, writing, and art—even if we read, write, and create the most disgusting, basest things—help us control ourselves in real life; and, conversely, that censorship destroys us, becomes the central theme of the film.
What Coulmier doesn’t know is that Sade, with the help of Madeline (Kate Winslet), a young, sassy laundress, is smuggling these stories to a publisher on the sly. When one of Sade’s books ends up in the hands of Napoleon himself, the emperor sends Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton to crack down on the inmates and Sade in particular. Unlike the liberal Coulmier, Royer-Collard believes in strict discipline, physical punishment, and censorship. Coulmier, now under the thumb of Royer-Collard, forbids Sade from writing…and all hell breaks loose.
As Coulmier puts more and more restrictions on Sade’s freedom, Sade goes to more and more extreme measures to fulfill his desire to write. When Coulmier takes away Sade’s quills, Sade uses a chicken bone and red wine to write a dirty story on his bed sheets. When Coulmier responds by taking away everything in Sade’s cell, Sade responds in turn by using his own blood to write his newest creation on his clothes. “The more I forbid, the more you’re provoked,” quips Coulmier. No shit, dumbass! And the more he forbids Sade to express himself, the more he, the Abbe, feels the need to squash his own desires—including his rather unpriestly desire to fuck the shit out of Madeline. It’s a slippery slope into chaos and insanity and it reveals the unspoken irony prevalent in most repressive religions and societies: that the more you deny yourself something, the more obsessed with it you become, until it consumes you completely.
So Quills is basically a big “fuck you” to religion, conservativism, censorship, and self-denial. And despite this, I don’t find it particularly preachy (probably because I agree with it). Rather than didacticism, Quills relies on humor and irony to get its point across. Like the works of Sade, Quills is as hilarious and ridiculous as it is dark and disturbing. My ideal combination and my ideal movie.