Kaufman made a big splash in 1988 with the aptly named The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a dumbed-down version of Milan Kundera's novel, which was itself a dumbed-down version of Robert Musil's early 20th-century novels. By throwing in a few bare breasts and taking out the few difficult ideas of that book, he managed to create a critical hit. Slavishly following this formula, he dumbed down the lives of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin (who, let's face it, were not all that smart to begin with), tossed in some lesbianism and wound up with the egregiously stupid but critically popular Henry and June. He took a brief detour into the action genre with the Wesley Snipes/Sean Connery vehicle Rising Sun, but now he's returned to his favorite genre, literary porn, with Quills.
Quills is the fictionalized story of the last days of the Marquis de Sade, the man who put the "S" in S&M. The movie opens with de Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) watching heads being chopped off in what was euphemistically known as "the terror." The film then flashes forward 10 years. De Sade is now in the Charenton asylum for the insane, and Napoleon's tiny butt is sitting on the throne.
From his well-appointed quarters at the asylum, the Marquis has continued to write his famously horrid fiction. A young laundry lass (Kate Winslet) smuggles it out for him, and it is published in Paris to great commercial success and official reprobation. Napoleon himself decides that something must be done, so he sends the evil Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton to oversee the more lax and humane work of the good Father Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix).
Frankly, with Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine and Joaquin Phoenix in the cast, it's pretty hard to go wrong, so I guess it's kind of impressive that Kaufman makes such a mess of things. Basically, he follows two simple rules to ensure that critics will pretend to like his movie: 1) act smart; 2) play dumb.
Everything gets oversimplified to the point of banality. Dr. Royer-Collard is reduced to a caricature of a movie villain. He tortures the mentally ill people under his care, he rapes his teenaged wife, and he stifles de Sade's literary output. I kept waiting for him to twirl his mustache and laugh maniacally.
The most manipulative, and silliest, part of Royer-Collard's character is his relation to his wife. Due to some unexplained back story, Royer-Collard has been keeping a young orphan girl locked away at a nunnery. He comes to collect her when she's in her early teens, and makes her his wife. Of course, this sort of sexual malfeasance is necessary because he's come to stop de Sade from writing pornography. See, if he's sexually perverse himself, then he's a hypocrite. Don't worry if this isn't entirely clear; it's spelled out in painful detail during the film.
With Royer-Collard's character so rigidly defined that he could serve as a dictionary entry for "villain," Kaufman sets out to use him as the foil for his simplistic story about censorship. Nothing hits home with artists and critics like censorship, so Kaufman is pretty much guaranteeing that at least the California film critics will pretend to love his work. Royer-Collard forbids de Sade to even have writing implements in his cell, so the good Marquis uses increasingly inventive methods to get his work out, first writing in wine on his bed sheets, then using his own blood to write on his clothes, and finally writing with a mixture of his saliva and feces.
Some of these scenes are actually pretty interesting, and if Quills were judged solely on its visual sense and the quality of its actors it would be an excellent film. The first half hour runs pretty smoothly, as Rush, Winslet and Phoenix are entirely captivating in their roles, and the set design and costumes are gorgeous.
There are also a number of charming concepts drawn directly from the works of de Sade, but they can't be discussed in a family paper. That's part of Kaufman's trickery, though; he uses de Sade's notorious reputation as a draw, assuming people will think that any film about the Marquis is full of sex and violence and sexual violence. Quills is actually pretty tame on that front, with only a few naked bodies and a smattering of blood. The de Sade angle is basically a bait-and-switch: Bring 'em in on the promise of porn, then feed them the story that's designed to appeal to the critics.
Quills isn't a complete washout, as it's not nearly as in love with itself as earlier Kaufman films, which tended to feature interminably long shots of the sun setting behind trees or candlelight reflecting off a well-toned thigh. Still, with material as rich and bizarre as de Sade's to work with, it's hard to imagine having made a more simplistic film than this.