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[whitespace] Geoffrey Rush The Literary Libertine: Geoffrey Rush dons the lacy cravat of the infamous Marquis de Sade.

Sade Story

'Quills' offers an intriguing look at the last years of the Marquis de Sade

By Richard von Busack

'NO SPIRIT was more free," said the poet Apollinaire, to which a later writer commented, "No body was more imprisoned, at any rate." The Marquis de Sade, hero of the new film Quills, served 30 years of his life in various dungeons for misdemeanors. In jail, he composed an enormous, rambling body of written work. De Sade's writings are a chaotic fantasy of sexual egalitarianism, an inverted version of utopian fantasy.

In his writings, every human is up for grabs, subject to any whim any other human might have--no matter how grisly. The argument against de Sade's work is the same argument against pornography: What if the wrong kind of person reads it, taking fantasy for gospel truth? From de Sade's novel Juliette: "How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination. In these delectable moments, the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us; we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate; the means to every crime is ours and we employ them all." Even Alfred Hitchcock couldn't have phrased a better description of the movie-going experience.

In this stunning comeback movie by Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), Geoffrey Rush plays de Sade during his confinement at the asylum at Charenton in the early 1800s. De Sade, naturally a handful, is under the care of a good, liberal, work-within-the-system-type weakling abbé (Joaquin Phoenix). He's also tended by a coy but hardheaded laundress (Kate Winslet, never riper and more inviting).

Summoned by the scandalous success of de Sade's print enormities, a new director arrives at the asylum, Dr.Royer-Collard, played by Michael Caine. The joke is that Royer-Collard exemplifies the type of authoritarian de Sade diagnosed in his prose. Caine's doctor crowns his new job with the legal conquest and imprisonment of a convent-educated child-bride. The second half of the film is a war of wills between the doctor and his prisoner, which takes a turn into mad punishment.

When the script, based on Doug Wright's play, departs from history into symbolism, the film falters. As a fable, Quills is grounded in realism too much to be completely accepted as a fairy tale. For example, the Reign of Terror sequence at the beginning of Quills feels alive with real horror; it's even better even than the scenes Val Lewton did for the David O. Selznick version of A Tale of Two Cities. Yet the last quarter of Quills is gory and flip/ironic in the manner of a Tales From the Crypt episode; this, despite a fine, acrid finale, a Pietà scene with a sting left in it.

Rush of Shine, in his best performance yet, makes the Marquis too grand a figure to be ground down by symbolic (and utterly fictional) violence. Rush evokes the humor and hyperbolic qualities of this influential, dreaded writer. Kaufman's made one of the few daring films this year, a discourse on the attractions and dangers of pornography that explains how S&M reshapes everyday pain into sudden pleasure.

Quills (R; 123 min.) directed by Philip Kaufman, written by Doug Wright (adapted from his play), photographed by Rogier Stoffers, and starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine, opens Thursday at the Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto.

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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