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For much of Quills, the Marquis de Sade remains a mysterious off-screen presence. Entombed in an insane asylum, he never leaves the cell in which he scribbles his manuscripts. Through keyholes, cracks in walls and doors left ajar, we observe him at a distance. He's like a caged animal. His shadowy presence tantalizes us, makes us beg for more. We want to draw closer but we dare not. It’s a strangely detached approach for director Phllip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June) who, being no stranger to literary eroticism, seldom flinches from the offensive. But the screenplay by Doug Wright (adapted from his stage play) gravitates towards a crowded gallery of stock characters and it’s good-to-be-bad simplicity, leaving the vast wilderness of the Marquis’ creativity virtually unexplored. Quills isn’t really about him anyway; it’s about his lingering effect on others. His absence is a deliberate choice and a miscalculated one: it leaves the movie anchorless. At one point, we see the Marquis, played by Geoffrey Rush, completely naked, saggy and pale, alone in his cell. If only his intellectual portrayal were as spare and revealing.

Despite its flaws, Quills is still great fun to watch. It’s a beautifully mounted and gamely acted production, energized by Philip Kaufman’s visual panache. The opening scene is the movie’s most ravishing: a young aristocratic woman lies on the ground, apparently waiting to be ravaged by a suitor. A hand grabs her neck, fondling it, but it is the hand of an executioner, who places it on the guillotine. Her moans of ecstasy become moans of pain as the blade trembles and finally falls. It is the Reign of Terror, and from his cell window, the Marquis records everything with his beloved quills. Many years later, he’s still writing from prison, only now he’s enlisted the help of a laundry maid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who smuggles his manuscripts out with the dirty linens. Rush and Winslet have an alluring chemistry. She is by no means his intellectual equal, but she can hold her own against his lascivious puns and overt advances, and just when we think he might devour her, she cracks a knowing smile and frees herself from his grasp. Wanting to learn from this mysterious prisoner whom the other servants whisper about but avoid, Madeleine becomes Clarice Starling to the Marquis’ Hannibal Lecter. He is a mentor and more: a twisted genius enraptured by the purity of an all-too-willing pupil. Whatever higher power they heed (Literature? Freedom of Expression? Sex?), it is a shared passion, a mutual intoxication that forces them to commit wonderfully wicked crimes.

When one of the smuggled manuscripts, Justine, is published and raises eyebrows in the court of Napolean Bonaparte, a government physician, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is dispatched to oversee the asylum and squelch the Marquis’ "incendiary prose." Strutting about like an inquisitor, he quickly wins the trust of the resident abbe (Joaquin Phoenix) and unpacks an alarming array of medieval torture devices designed to restore reason to the insane. Caine has great fun with his role, which is broadly drawn and crosses more than once into caricature. When, in the climactic scene, he fails to rescue Madeleine from a rapist, he may as well sprout horns and a forked tail. Too easy to hate, he is partially restored to humanity by Caine’s haggard face, which looks as if he's seen one too many dusty, droughty insane asylums."

Why Caine has so much screen time remains a mystery. Kaufman seems intent on demonstrating over and over again what a mean man Royer-Collard is. His young wife Simone (Amelia Warner) is a convent-educated doe whom he showers with riches by day and brutally sodomizes at night. She lives in a mansion he built for her, but growing bored, seeks out the Marquis’ banned Justine. Enflamed by its words, she takes a lover with whom she enacts the novel’s most explicit scenes and with whom she eventually elopes. Her story is deliberately Sadian, rife with overstated virtue and depravity, and for a few moments, it suffuses Quills with a hint of coy parody. When the cuckolded Caine returns to the screen, however, the movie resumes a more traditional course. His rage against the Marquis, all clenched teeth and ominous stares, steers Quills to a predictable finale.

As the mild-mannered abbe who becomes Royer-Collard’s pawn, Joaquin Phoenix is more than just a saintly fool: he’s irrelevant. Intended to be a sympathetic every man, he succeeds only in distracting us from far more interesting characters. The emotional arc he travels (which includes a repressed lust for Madeleine) is a shopworn series of priestly conflicts. Phoenix’s face, so perfect for playing bad boys, works surprisingly well here, but his abbe is just one of many characters who could have been excised from the screenplay. Others include the Marquis’ long suffering wife, Madeleine’s blind mother, and a host of insane inmates who are shamelessly paraded about in the name of comic relief.

Through all this clutter, Geoffrey Rush’s tight, controlled performance still radiates carnal energy. His Marquis is an over the hill satyr, dressed with ostentatious disarray in a flowing gown and powdered wig, neither of which have been washed in some time. He sneers and leers, spews insinuating double entendres, and reclines provocatively on his chaise-lounge. His every word rolls off his tongue like some bodily secretion to be savored. Among his many sexual collectibles is a human skull comprised of interlocking naked bodies carved from wood. Rush’s Marquis is a thinker, and listening to him it’s hard not to feel a little intimidated by his unbridled imagination. As Royer-Collard gradually confiscates his writing instruments, the Marquis is forced to write with wine, then blood, and eventually his own shit. His progressive debasement is a harrowing sequence. With each constraint, the Marquis becomes more resourceful, employing the unspeakable to create the unprintable. His final scene, in which he cries for a girl who died a virgin, reminds us of what a twisted, unconventional, and quite possibly moving experience Quills could have been.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]