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20th Century Fox presents
Quills (2000)

"Be forewarned—its plot is blood-soaked, its characters depraved, and its themes... unwholesome at best. But in order to know virtue, we must acquaint ourselves with vice. Only then can we know the full measure of man. So come. I dare you. Turn the page."
- Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush)

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: April 25, 2001

Stars: Kate Winslet, Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix
Other Stars: Michael Caine
Director: Philip Kaufman

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: R for for strong sexual content including dialogue, violence, and language
Run Time: 02h:03m:57s
Release Date: May 08, 2001
UPC: 024543016625
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+A-B+ B

DVD Review

It's always nice when a film says something meaningful about real life. Even better when that message is subtle (and not shoved down our throats, a la Disney). Quills, surprisingly enough, is not only a stylistic, perverse, and entertaining picture, it also makes a rather contemporary argument about freedom of speech vs. freedom of incendiary speech and the question of dictating morality in society. And who would've thought the ol' Marquis de Sade, basis for the term sadism, would make for such a captivating character on screen? The infamous writer, known for his graphic sexual stories, was revolutionary in his time. He penned a story about every sexual taboo you could dream up, and caused quite a fuss in 18th-century France. Of course, his writing now seems tame compared to your average issue of Penthouse Forum, but think of the times!

The film begins late in de Sade's (Rush) life. It seems the state of France was none-too-pleased with his smutty little stories, and rather than jail him, they've put him into an insane asylum. This doesn't stop him from writing—the Abbe of the asylum, Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), believes that writing will help de Sade rid himself of his internal demons. Unbeknownst to Coulmier, however, the Marquis slips his manuscripts to a servant, Madeline (Kate Winslet), and she takes them to the outside world to be published. Napoleon is outraged when he learns of the Marquis' work (probably because it takes the attention off of him), and orders a new doctor, Royer-Collard (Caine), be sent to the asylum. Royer-Collard is known for his creative treatments (which look a bit like torture to me).

Quills has two things going for it right off the bat—a stylish, visually exciting director and an amazing cast. Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) really adds punch to the screenplay. After all, the entire film occurs within the asylum, and something had to be done to keep things interesting. The lighting, editing, and inventive camera angles all add to the engaging look of the work. I was very impressed by several techniques, and the opening is very unique (if a bit graphic). Of course, all this style has a bit of a downside as well, but I'll touch on that in a moment.

As I said, wow, what a cast. Look at those names. Kate Winslet. Geoffrey Rush. Michael Caine. Joaquin Phoenix. Where have I heard those before? For some reason, the image of a little gold statue named Oscar® is sticking in my mind. All of these "names" do outstanding work. Rush gives his best performance since Shine, turning the rather disgusting de Sade into a bewitching, charming figure. Phoenix also does fine work, plus he gets to trot out his phony English accent once again (but I kid Joaquin, he's better here than he was in Gladiator). Caine is the token villain, but he does add a few layers to an underwritten part. Finally, Winslet, after a few missteps in films like Holy Smoke, performs well in yet another period piece (she should just buy a corset).

I implied earlier that Quills makes several arguments relevant even today. On one level, the film deals with freedom of speech, and how that freedom can affect others. De Sade's writing may not seem to be all that dangerous, but reportedly, it has driven men to murder their spouses; women, their husbands. This parallels the Hollywood hoo-ha over violence in movies creating violence in the streets (and schools). The Marquis caps this rather disquieting issue, saying, "If one of our inmates decides to walk on water and drowns, do we blame the Bible?"

Also dealt with is the issue of dictating morality. All the characters are, for the most part, morally ambiguous. De Sade is, of course, very open about his scruples, but even the self-righteous doctor keeps a sixteen-year-old wife (young enough to be his granddaughter). This element of the screenplay reminded me of the Clinton scandal, when his accusers were condemning him for actions they, too, were guilty of committing. Who is to dictate what is proper? The state? The law? The church? God?

These are certainly compelling situations, but unfortunately, I believe they lose a bit of their impact as they are overshadowed by the spectacle of the film. Kaufman is so eager to wallow in the dirtiness, the depravity, the "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" aspects of the story that he obscures the real moral arguments central to the film. I wouldn't call it style over substance, but perhaps style>substance would apply.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Gee. What fun. Another image review for a Fox disc. Why don't I just cut and paste something from the last Fox disc I reviewed? Well, here goes: Once again, bravo Fox and such. Despite some stylistic choices that might have presented problems, Quills looks very nice on DVD. This isn't a very colorful film—most scenes seem to have a predominant tone, be it gold, or gray, or blue. This stylized palette comes across beautifully. The film has a sort of hazy look, with atmospheric lighting to add to the feeling of claustrophobia and confinement, but I certainly can't fault the transfer, as it was clearly a stylistic choice. Often films shot using this technique come off looking very digital on DVD, with a lot of shimmer and artifacting; Quills suffers from none of those problems. Finally, the black level is good as well, also fitting in with the overall visual style of the film.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Dynamic audio doesn't play a huge part in this dialogue-drive film, but this is still a nice, atmospheric track. The surrounds are put to good use, adding to the insanity of the madhouse, especially during the intense chapter 16 - "Bedlam." Other than that, this is a very nicely balanced track, with the dialogue, sound effects, and musical score mixing very well.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
1 TV Spots/Teasers
3 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by screenwriter Doug Wright
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Still Gallery
  2. Fact & Film
  3. Music Promo
Extras Review: Praise, praise, praise. Are you bored reading all these platitudes yet? Well, steel yourself, because here come some more. Fox has done a good job with the extras for Quills, and while they aren't particularly in-depth, they are still a change from the usual promo-fluff.

I was a bit leery of the commentary track, since, in my experience, most screenwriters seem to have a lot of trouble talking about their work. Doug Wright, however, does a pretty good job. The track is a bit dry, but he talks consistently and offers a lot of on-set anecdotes and stories about the production. I also enjoyed his comments about the reality of de Sade's life vs. the fiction of the film. After all, as de Sade says in the opening dialogue, the story is historical fact, "tarted up" for our pleasure.

Three featurettes run about seven minutes each. The first, The Marquis on the Marquee, covers the screenplay and its transition from reality, to a play, to the screen. This is probably the least interesting of the three, because it mostly involves people praising the script, but it is worth a look. Creating Charenton briefly covers the production design, specifically the look of the asylum. This piece was very interesting for me (harking back to my days as a set builder for plays in high school), and I wish it'd been longer. Finally, the costume design and the difficulty of creating a period piece without turning it into a "costume drama" is explained in Dressing the Part.

There is a very brief still gallery, which highlights some of the props from the film (sadly, not the various phallic statues from the Marquis' quarters), and another gallery covers the characters, with a paragraph or two about how they differ from their real-life counterparts.

Also included are two identical trailers (except one has Spanish subtltles - why is this necessary? It's the same thing!), both in fullscreen, one TV spot, and (treasure of treasures) an ad for the soundtrack.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Due to the overwhelming sexual content, I can't recommend Quills right out, as those uncomfortable with, shall we say, unusual sexual tastes, will probably really dislike the film. Also, I don't think watching it with mom would make for a comfortable experience. But really, this probably isn't as dirty as you are expecting, and there is a nice little nugget of social commentary hidden under all the "filth," so why not try it out? So come. I dare you. Click the DVD remote.


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