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20th Century Fox (DVD), ASIN B00003CXPV

Prior to the advent of modern psychology, treatment of the criminally insane amounted to little more than locking 'em up and throwing away the key, as testified by countless films set in labyrinthine asylums whose walls echo to the screams and ravings of the inmates. An asylum, then, would seem as good a place as any to set a story characterized by volatile personalities and sinister happenings in gloomy candlelit corridors.

dvd: quills Under the lingering influence of the Reign of Terror, Charenton Insane Asylum aims for a more progressive approach, driven by the ideals of the Abbe du Colmier (Joaquin Phoenix). Pyromaniacs, rapists and murderous sociopaths are all gently coaxed along the path to sanity -- all except the asylum's most infamous patient, the unrepentant, gleefully lascivious Marquis de Sade. Unbeknownst to the Abbe, the Marquis' purgative works on seduction, incest and innumerable perversions enjoy a ready market on the streets beyond the walls of his luxurious cell. Devoured by rich and poor alike, the much-anticipated tales are distributed by Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a wholesome, dusky-cheeked laundrywoman with an innocent fondness for the Marquis and his stories.

The Marquis' fame eventually reaches Napoleon himself, who demands that this aristocratic affront to common decency be silenced. When the abbe's efforts to persuade the Marquis to refrain from selling his therapy fail, he turns under duress to a well-known doctor, whose methods could hardly be more different from his own. Within days Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) -- with his beautiful, naïve new wife (Amelia Warner) in tow -- institutes a new regime and a bitter battle of wills ensues.

As the Abbe's influence begins to slip away, the Marquis' rebellion becomes more daring and catalyses the disintegration of Colmier's carefully maintained virtue and the flight of Collard's unhappy wife. The righteous rage of the cuckolded husband and the priest's loss of moral certainty, combined with mutinous whisperings among the inmates build to a tragic climax.

Although Geoffrey Rush consistently steals scenes as the Marquis, thoroughly enjoying the over-the-top pantomime villainy, Michael Caine's equally unrestrained doctor and Warner's ingénue lend depth. The script neatly skims "forbidden love" clichés, sensitively rendering the dynamic between Winslet's laundry maid, de Sade and Colmier, as the priest takes on her education, his burgeoning feelings, and the Marquis' malicious probing. Phoenix delivers a riveting performance in Colmier's transition from sure shepherd of the flock to a man with an ever more tenuous grip on his own sanity.

Blackly comic and less graphic than the subject matter might suggest, Quills effectively maintains the gothic tone (complete with Irvingesque dark horseman) throughout, while diluting the shock value of the original stage play and glossing over historical fact. But taken at face value, the wonderfully wicked Quills forms a literate melodrama as much about freedom of expression as the "crimes of love."

Maysa M. Hattab

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