For anyone who doesn't already know it, the term "sadist" derives from the writings and life of the Marquis de Sade. His name has become synonymous with depravity, sin and prurience whether well-founded or not. But the niceties of historical accuracy play a back seat in the minds of the people who brought us "Quills". Their primary interest was to depict every sexual practice and depravity on the menu and to do it in as extreme a way as their pseudo characters make convenient. Even when necrophilia didn't fit into the scheme of the main story they simply inserted it in a completely gratuitous scene.
The actors fully conspire with the filmmakers to (arguably) go farther than they should to depict the sexual hi-jinx and, in doing so, one can only admire the courage it took, especially for Geoffrey Rush in the central role.
The Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is safely ensconced in his cell in the infamous Charenton insane asylum -- a cell that resembles someone's 19th century livingroom, complete with desk, quills and ink so that he might continue to write and publish his infamous books.
When he's not writing, he's lusting after the comely scullery maid Madeleine (Kate Winslet) who'd rather just be his friend, intellectual admirer and defender while demonstrating nothing more than her sincere affection for the older man and her faith in the importance of his creative output. In fact, she puts her life on the line as she conspires to be the conduit of the secret writings to the publisher.
Though publishing his writing is like air to breathe to the Marquis, he shows no particular gratitude toward her for the vital role she plays, preferring to express his feelings in completely unwanted and unreturned advances. That she so frequently submits herself to this situation is typical of how plausible behavior in this script is distorted in order to work off that list of depravities. It's pure contrivance.
Complicit in the manuscript smuggling operation is Father Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) who, at first, runs the asylum and chooses to look the other way when Madeleine is doing her secretive work. But, when the books are published, and reach the court, there is no amusement at the material that makes them the butt of the jokes. When the stream of prurience keeps emanating from the asylum, they send M. Royer-Collar (Michael Caine in a signature bit of scoundrelly over-acting) to quash the Marquis' creative output.
First off, he orders de Sade's quills to be removed, an act that devastates the writer, and sets him off in a never ending paraxysm of despair. He cries for his quills (hence, the title). But this is only the first in a continuing stream of depravations, as the Marquis resourcefully finds other ways to write, using blood and other materials for ink. We'll not say what other material he uses. Depravity, of a particularly graphic and obvious kind, is the watchword here.
The point of this over-written character is to champion artistic expression by depicting a writer who is so in need of getting his words out that he takes on a personal war he cannot win against the forces of repression. Nice conceit, but the trouble this movie has in conveying it is that the character whose work is so imperiled created the repression of his work through the intemperance of his subject matter. I think the filmakers assumed that this little contradiction wouldn't bother the audience. In fact, I thought it weakened the theme to the point of nearly demolishing it. It's like a murderer pleading not guilty but attacking the judge in the courtroom. That's no way to win the case. Plus, it smacks little of what the real de Sade was likely about.
Perhaps someone else will do a more useful version of de Sade's life that hews closer to historical accuracy for the benefit of dramatizing the effect of his art with greater meaning and historical impact. Meanwhile, we have this sledgehammer of hysteria that might be fun for some audiences.
Geoffrey Rush is totally committed to the incessant pounding of the idea that championing the cause of creative freedom has nothing to do with any niceties of character. Plus, the levels of noisy scurrility and total abandon he wallows in seems to have something to do with getting the attention of the academy at oscar time.
Were I to handicap that particular horserace I'd say he has a chance at a nomination, depending on who his rivals might be for Best Actor, but that the actor's branch of the academy is not likely to give this kind of overbearing characterization the nod for the gold. I'd like to think they'd appreciate something more nuanced, closer to recognizable human behavior. Putting him in a nut house doesn't give you license to play so crazed and be taken seriously.
My favorite in this movie is, far and away, Kate Winslet, who is a lynch pin to behavioral recognizability. Whatever tie this movie has to normality is provided by her steady character and she shines as she makes her way amidst the depiction of debauchery and scurillous excesses of her peers. She's amazingly level-headed and her intelligence brings sexy attractiveness to the kinky goings-on. She's the one I root for.
I say "the depiction of debauchery" because it never convinced me. It seemed to me just so much play-acting. Exaggeration is dangerous to believability and engagement.
Philip Kaufman ("Henry & June", 1990; "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", 1988) fearlessly over-directed.