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(2000) *** 1/2 R
124 min. . Directors: Philip Kaufman, Vic Armstrong. Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine, Billie Whitelaw.

Director Philip Kaufman has almost become synonymous with button-pushing films. Kaufman has been put in the position of defending his films more than once, but usually when they cross into sexually charged territory. Beside The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kaufman's Henry and June famously sparked a firestorm of prudish reactions, including the issuance of the first NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America. With his new film, Quills, Kaufman now aims his considerable cinematic weaponry at precisely the hypocritical prudery that threatens his own artistic freedom.

By retelling the story of the Marquis de Sade, with a fair share of fictionalization, Kaufman makes a timely argument against today's conservative, reactionary "culture police". Quills offers a virtuoso performance from Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis, and an exceptional ensemble ably supports him. The year is 1794. The Marquis is holed up in France's Charenton Asylum, run by the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). A chambermaid of the asylum named Madeleine (Kate Winslet) slips the Marquis' sadistic (the term was coined after him) pornographic writings to the outside world, where they are extremely popular. Except, these dirty fables are somewhat less popular with Napoleon, who dispatches Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to put an end to the Marquis' writing career.

While Quills can be overwrought, Kaufman's direction and Doug Wright's screenplay (based on his original play) are literate and fascinating, qualities exceedingly rare in films this year so far. Quills bears a surface similarity to The People Versus Larry Flynt, but digs deeper, finding both rawer emotions and richer variations on the theme of unsavory but justifiable free speech. Kaufman expertly weaves symbolism through the mostly straightforward story (one key tangent establishes Caine's height of hypocrisy), with the very fabric of nature intertwined with the passionate artistic impulse, and the passionate artistic impulse mirrored in sexuality (quills and inkwells are the hot dogs and donuts of the film). The triumph of the film is Kaufman's ability to work on different levels. While he hammers home the insane hypocrisy of oversexed censors, he also paints subtler points in less obvious areas of his canvas. Quills is essential viewing.

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