At the Charenton insane asylum, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has a nice life good food, good wine, the ability to smuggle his dirty books out to his publisher via a sympathetic chambermaid (Kate Winslet). But he offends Napoleon, who orders an alienist (Michael Caine) to cure him or kill him.
First he's robbed of his writing instruments (the quills that give this movie its title). Undaunted, he uses his blood for ink, his clothing as paper. Stripped, he manages to write a story in his excrement on his cell walls. Finally, his tormentors rip out his tongue. "Quills" is not, obviously, your standard biopic.
It is actually a fantasy only vaguely based on the facts of the case a distinctly postmodern fantasy insistently exploiting the paradox that De Sade is a victim of sadism as wretched as any he might have imagined. Other matters are also ironically explored: What is freedom; What is power that sort of thing. The film's creators director Phil Kaufman, writer Doug Wright (adapting his own play) seem to think they have made a black comedy. But Kaufman, who displayed a gift for sexy literacy in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," here succumbs to an unbearable heaviness of spirit. His approach to this material is brutally horrific, vulgarly unamusing. And Rush wears the desire for another Oscar nomination on his sleeve in a puffed-up, unfelt performance.
The film poses a smug challenge: If you don't like our merry little prank, that makes you square and unhip. OK, we'll bite. This is soft-gore porn, obvious in its strategies, witless in the play of its ideas, absurdist only in its pretense to seriousness.