As the Marquis de Sade, Geoffrey Rush, wearing dirty white breeches and an even dirtier smile, makes a lewd and gleeful hambone jester in Quills. Directed by Philip Kaufman, from Doug Wright’s adaptation of his 1995 stage play, this lavish and energized production is set at the turn of the 18th century, when De Sade, nearing the end of his life of scandal, sits imprisoned inside Charenton, a cavernous stone mental institution, scrawling away with quills and parchment as he taps the bottomless well of his sexual fantasies, spewing them into extravagant tomes of lecherous, blasphemous infamy.
The smartest thing Kaufman did was to get Rush, an actor of incendiary bad boy vitality, to play De Sade. The dumbest thing he did was to make a drama about the most outrageous writer in the history of Western civilization and to keep this walking, seething human id locked up in a clammy medieval cell for the entire film. The Marquis sneaks his manuscripts out of the asylum through a secret courier, Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a rosy cheeked virgin laundress who thrills to his writing and his devilish charm, even as she shucks off his horny advances.
Early on, he succeeds in getting his publisher a copy of ”Justine,” and it becomes an underground hit, as readers gather on the streets of Paris to devour every lusty page. The authorities, incensed, send Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a kind of thought cop shrink, to cure De Sade of his wanton ways.
Is De Sade a criminal? A sicko? A visionary? As Rush plays him, he’s a boisterous sprite of high perversion, naughty but not really wicked. ”Quills” comes on as a fearless celebration of art, freedom, and the unbridled soul of human sexuality. The film, however, isn’t really about the epic fire of De Sade’s erotic imagination. It’s about censorship (we’re meant to go, ”How relevant!”), and the way it rendered De Sade a revolutionary pariah.
Royer-Collard, played by an unusually bland Caine, is a virtuous hypocrite who takes a child bride and then cracks down on the Marquis for trafficking in similar fantasy. In a strange way, though, ”Quills,” too, strikes a tone of hypocritical squeamishness. The Marquis de Sade was consumed by images of cruelty, orgiastic excess, pederasty, and murder; he remains one of the most radical and terrifying of all writers because he shocks, and challenges, not just puritans but liberals.
The De Sade we see in ”Quills” is just a giddy prankster who writes lip smacking odes to the glory of women’s body parts. His rapt attraction to pain is ascribed to his having seen the horrors of the French Revolution. Even his grandest perversities are made ”political.”
”Quills” bleaches the danger — and fascination — out of De Sade, turning him into a kind of mad saint of ”Masterpiece Theatre” porn. By the end, the Marquis, nude and in torment, uses wine, blood, even his own feces to keep on writing, waging his war against the prudes who would erase him from the world. It’s hard not to cheer him on, even as the film itself erases De Sade more than it reveals him.