There's something annoyingly smug and self-righteous about "Quills," filmmaker Philip Kaufman's lewd, lascivious and only occasionally illuminating film about the last days of the Marquis de Sade, adapted by Doug Wright from his factually wobbly, Obie-winning play. It's a pricey looking period piece, built around a riveting, attention-getting performance from Geoffrey Rush ("Shine"), that's as frustrating as it is intriguing.
Kaufman, so inspired as the director of "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Right Stuff" and so over-reaching with the likes of "Rising Sun" and "Henry and June," is hellbent on stuffing his latest with images meant to provoke controversy. A victim's-eye view of a beheading opens the movie, as a woman is put to death for her sexual indiscretions. And the parade of behavioral excess marches on nonstop, with passages concerning rape, torture, necrophilia and -- appropriate to the story of the French pornographer -- references to a variety of sexual pleasures and pains. For the most part, these are hollow, self-conscious gestures, albeit connected by literate, archly delivered dialogue and wrapped inside a lofty theme.
The intent, one guesses, was to create a controversial morality play about the ever-continuing battle between repression and freedom of expression. Chief among those on the side of righteous libertarianism, of course, is the notorious Sade, whose tale we join near the beginning of his stay at an insane asylum. There, he is treated like the nobleman he is, allowed to stock his well-appointed cell with sexually explicit art, a four-poster bed, wine, books, a desk and plenty of ink and quill pens. His high life results from the tolerance of a kindly young priest, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), determined to give the marquis free rein to indulge his talents as a creator of perverse stories. Coulmier hopes that his charge's writing will work as a sort of "curative" for the forbidden thoughts that clutter his mind. Alas, but not even imprisonment can keep a good man down, and Sade manages to smuggle his writing out, feeding the public's voracious appetite for the banned books.
"Quills," despite its noble attempt to champion First Amendment freedoms, too often comes off as the 19th-century version of a glorified soap opera, a bawdy, violent scorcher with sharply drawn good guys, bad guys and innocents. The chaos is meant to represent the last gasps of an artist extinguished for fighting the good fight, a true martyr for freedom of expression. "Quills," fascinatingly flawed, isn't up to that task.