King Of Kink

The pointed arrival of "Quills" in the midst of Washington's show trials on Hollywood's alleged immorality couldn't be more timely. A literate, playfully provocative defense of free speech at its most abominable, director Philip Kaufman and writer Doug Wright's movie impudently positions the Marquis de Sade--the 18th-century pornographer who inspired the word sadism--as the twisted spokesman for the creative spirit.

We focus in on the old pervert late in his life, when he is incarcerated in the lunatic asylum at Charenton. Fortunately for the marquis (Geoffrey Rush), it's run by a liberal priest (Joaquin Phoenix) who allows him comfy confines, ample wine, and quills and paper with which to pour out his obsessive sexual fantasies. With the aid of a young laundress (Kate Winslet), de Sade's inflammatory books are smuggled out and published--to the outrage of Napoleon. The emperor dispatches the chilly Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to the asylum with orders to "kill or cure" the offender. But de Sade is not easily silenced.

"Quills" is based only loosely on the facts. Guided by Rush's deliciously theatrical performance, this battle of wits and wills is presented as a comedy of depraved manners. (Nasty as this marquis is, the film cheats a bit by soft-pedaling the sexual violence of his work. The quotations from his work were actually written by Wright.) Ultimately, "Quills" descends into overwrought melodrama. But at its bright and bawdy best, it bubbles with subversive wit.