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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/17/01

2000 (2001) - Fox Searchlight (Fox)

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs


Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/C

Specs and Features

124 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 52:05, in chapter 9), Amaray keep case packaging, 3 production featurettes (Marquis on the Marquee, Creating Charenton and Dressing the Part), audio commentary by screenwriter Doug Wright, photo still gallery, 2 theatrical trailers, television spot, soundtrack promo, Quills facts & film trivia, film-themed menu screens with animation and sound, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and 2.0) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Quills is the fictionalized account of the final days of the notorious Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), and his stay in an insane asylum in France toward the end of the 18th century. He posed no danger to society, but nobody in France knew what to do with him or his explicit writings. The solution? Lock him up and take away his writing utensils to squelch his passion for detailing his most perverse and violent sexual fantasies. While there, he develops a sort of quid pro quo relationship with Madeleine (Kate Winslett), a beautiful laundress who, in an attempt to share his forbidden prose with the world, smuggles his writings out of his room with the soiled bed sheets. Getting these writings beyond the walls of the asylum is no easy task. The autocratic Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Cane) has been put in place by an embarrassed Napoleon to personally oversee operations at the asylum (and to closely watch de Sade), and he is none too fond of the Marquis' writings. He takes every effort to make sure that humanity at large is spared the amorality of his compositions.

The Marquis will stop at nothing to get his writings onto paper. When his quill and ink are taken from him, he takes to more inventive means of creating his literature. His bed sheets become his paper, and drops of wine from his dinner glass become his writing ink. Later on in the story, his desperation to write becomes even more extreme (I will save the details for those who have not yet seen the film). It goes without saying that a film about the Marquis de Sade cannot be produced without exploring the fringes of sexual desire and (the word named after him) sadism. In Quills, most of this exploration is done in narrative form, as various characters and performers in the asylum's theatrical productions read off some of the Marquis' work. Some of these works are actual excerpts from his writings, and some of it is fanciful, Sade-like work penned by the film's screenwriter Doug Wright. It works for the film and showcases the Marquis' flare for everything extreme - be it sexual desire or literary prose. Director Philip Kaufman (of the much lauded The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being) is one of the most versatile directors working today, and with Quills, he creates a dynamically entertaining film about one of literature's most enduring authors.

I know I'm going against the grain, but I didn't care for Rush's performance here. There's no doubt in my mind that he's a fine actor. When he's good, he's very good, but I found his performance here to be too showy for my tastes. It actually became a distraction for me and at times interfered with my enjoyment of the film. We know from the Marquis' writing that he was an eccentric, but Rush's performance is only eccentric and gives very little dimension to the Marquis personality outside of his peculiarity. On the other hand, I enjoyed the rest of the film's supporting characters. Kate Winslett proves once again that she is one of the better actors of her generation, and she is wonderful as the buxom laundress, hell bent on seeing the good side of the Marquis. Hers is an interesting part in that she must to be simultaneously repulsed by, drawn to, confused by and sympathetic toward the Marquis. Joaquin Phoenix is also good as the understanding Abbe Coulmier, who also tries to see the good in the Marquis, and Michael Cane (as usual) is effective in his role as the equally sadistic doctor, whose enduring love for his petty tortures rivals the writings of the Marquis.

Fox is quickly becoming a favorite among DVD enthusiasts, and Quills proves why. Though it lacks the special edition moniker, it's a quality release and it all starts with the picture. The image is a superb anamorphic transfer that presents little to gripe about. But, since that's what I'm here to do, I'll get my minor quibble out of the way first. Once in a while, you will be able to notice some digital artifacting. It pops up only on occasion, but it's there and I don't like it. Other than that, this is a very good picture. This is a new film, so you're all but guaranteed a source print that's free of knicks and hairline scratches. Flesh tones and color reproduction are accurate, smooth and without flaw. Black level is appropriately dark and detailed and is essential for a film that is filled with as many shadows as this one is. The color palette alternates between very warm, fiery looking shots and pale, muted shots to accent the Marquis' repression. All told, this is a strong picture and another winner for Fox.

The Dolby 5.1 track is also first-rate, but isn't going to provide you with the earth-rumbling experience that your average Die Hard film would. The rear channels do provide some soft, subtle directional effects, but more often than not, they're used for the film's musical score. There's more separation in the front end of the soundfield, and it benefits from a robust mix of the music and effects track. The .1 LFE channel was noticeably active throughout much of the movie and created a well-defined sense of depth to the mix. Never were there any instances of dropout in the dialogue track, and it was never overpowered by an energetic effects track. This is of utmost importance for a talky film like Quills. If you're without a 5.1 setup, the Dolby 2.0 track (in English or French) should do you fine.

There are a handful of features on the disc that provide some insight into the making of the film. The running audio commentary by screenwriter Doug Wright (who adapted the film from his stage production) is, in bits and pieces, informative. Listening to it from beginning to end, however, becomes a chore. Wright's screenplay is exceptional, but he speaks about it with very little enthusiasm and sounds like he's giving a lecture from pre-written notes. You may find yourself struggling to stay awake if you take in the entire track at one viewing. The three featurettes each give brief details about different aspects of the film (the screenplay, set design and costuming). Each piece on its own is informative, but the material may have been better served by putting them into one 18-minute feature. There's a small photo gallery that consists mostly of pictures of props from the film. Give it a look, but really it's only worth seeing once. I was surprised to find that I actually learned something from the short fact & trivia section. Though short in nature (only a few lines of information on each screen), it outlines a few of the major differences between the fictional story and that actual life of the Marquis. The remaining features are promotional in nature: two theatrical trailers (virtually the same trailer, except one has Spanish subtitles), a television spot and a 30-second spot for the soundtrack. I was disappointed with the commentary track, but as far as the extra features are concerned, I don't think you can ask for a whole lot more on a standard edition disc.

Quills is an unusual film that, beneath its seemingly perverse subject matter, possesses a sense of humor about it all (example: the Abbe assures one of the patients at the asylum that it's more fun to paint a fire than it is to set one). Both writer and director took the wise approach by not preaching right and wrong about the Marquis' writings. They simply present it and the Marquis as characters that are independent of each other, and craft an entertaining film. Fox has given it an appealing DVD presentation for those who didn't see it in its limited theatrical run. It's not your average, uptight costume drama, so if that's what's keeping you from seeing it, shame on you! The Marquis would give you just the little spanking you need to get you to see it. Run along now…

Dan Kelly

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