THOUGH IT IS STILL a salacious diversion, returning to ‘Quills’ in adulthood strips away the mantle of profound drama adolescence had bestowed upon it. But this may well be deliberate, for in many ways ‘Quills’ is like one of the Marquis’ own stories: pointedly melodramatic, sensational to a fault, and so indulgent as to be fantasy without consequence. Its characters are universally corruptible, every motive can be reduced down to sexual depravity, and the all the core conflicts are shams, for their endings are telegraphed from virtually every character’s first scene. Altogether, it smacks of a licentious dream, vivid and evocative while it lasts but just as easily put aside once it has passed.
Still, sometimes a truly garish script is necessary to draw out the total commitment of an actor, and here ‘Quills’ has not lost a whit. Mastery comes in subtle facial cues and deliberate pauses, but so, too, in the thriving, writhing sadism of Geoffrey Rush, who holds nothing back in his portrayal of the Marquis. Yes, any actor can strip naked—indeed, most humans do every day—but what separates Rush from exhibitionism is in how he makes this depraved weevil of a man sympathetic. Despite his remorseless manipulation and torment of the Abbe (a young and slightly precious Joaquin Phoenix), we come to believe in his compulsion, his mania, and to pity him. Which he would undoubtedly detest.
The Abbe would seem to be the Marquis’ foil at first, but this role is more thoroughly fulfilled by the menacing Michael Caine, a perfectly deplorable doctor whose zeal for punishment is equaled only by his complete lack of self-accountability. The menace between the two is rare and electric. Completing the picture (as well as giving the audience one character we can identify with) is Kate Winslet’s scullery maid, Madeline. She is charismatic without being coy, stubborn without being ostentatious, and her earthy tête–à–tête with the Marquis help ground the film’s more exaggerated, nightmarish cavorting.
As for the setting itself, the environments are convincingly rendered—detailed enough to be immersive, but not so obsessive or gratuitous in their depiction as to preen. And if the excesses of the story make it easy to dismiss as folly, the imagery is still highly memorable. There are the peak passages, of course: the count capering upon a table in his white coattails blood-smeared with glorious smut; his proud nakedness in an empty cell, facing us while the black-cloaked Abbe looks away. But also the small: the Abbe lurching from his chambers in pursuit of Madeline, only to recoil as another’s face turn towards him; an upward angle of the heavily garbed doctor crouched in his coach like a spider, smirking as only Michael Caine can. If the theater of ‘Quills’ threatens to overwhelm itself at times, these moments redeem it. And, then, if ‘Quill’s is indeed like an erotic dream, existing for its own colorful pleasure, high art be damned, then it is a complete coup.