Excited, heavy breathing charges the darkness. The voice of Geoffrey Rush’s (Shakespeare in Love) Marquis de Sade leers, “I’ve a naughty tale to tell.” He spins a masterful yarn of nobility, pain and blood which director Philip Kaufman (Henry & June) romantically illustrates, lighting up the black screen. Set within the milieu of the French Revolution, Sade’s erotically sinister fairy tale of agonizing pleasures and a reversal of fortune comes to a lurid climax, short-circuiting sex, violence and politics in an ejaculation of gore.
The Marquis smuggles out his “naughty tale,” Justine, from the Charenton Asylum for the Insane bundled within his dirty sheets, aided and abetted by his accomplice in literary crimes against the state, one of the asylum’s maids, Madeleine (Kate Winslet, Holy Smoke). Though violating emperor Napoleon’s prohibition on pornography, it sells “like the devil,” bought from under coats in city alleys like illegal drugs.
Quills turns from the comedy of light, social satire to the tragedy of dark, gothic horror around an axle of irony. Outrageous “lunatic” Sade’s idiosyncratic crimes of the pen are punished by institutionalized crimes of the state (censorship, torture and mutilation) at the hands of two respected figures: a man of God, Charenton’s administrator, Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator) and a man of science, Dr. Royer-Collard (Academy Award-winner Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules).
The state equips Royer-Collard with gruesome engines of torture (his instruments of “cure”) and confiscates Sade’s quills, ink and, horribly, much more fundamental instruments of speech. Though Coulmier is the warden of Charenton, he is bound by his vows to the church, while his notorious inmate’s mind is irrepressibly liberated even under lock and key. Both doctor and priest realize crimes against the flesh equal to those in their infamous patient’s prose, but manage to license them through the laws of church and state, their respectability remaining sacrosanct.
Perhaps today Sade’s legacy can be found in the triple-X and horror bins of our local video stores — or, like Larry Flynt’s, in First Amendment arguments. Quills provides its own epitaph for the Marquis: “A man who found freedom at the bottom of an inkwell, at the tip of a quill.”
Opens Monday, Christmas Day, exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at email@example.com.