*Quills (R) Hannibal (R)
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Metro Goldwyn Mayer/ Universal Pictures
"Who doesn't dream of indulging every spasm of lust? Feeding each depraved hunger?" These words could have prefaced Ridley Scott's Hannibal, a bizarre and overblown ode to -- gulp! -- a psychotic but charming and erudite cannibal.
Instead, they are the words of the infamous Marquis de Sade whose last days in an insane asylum are imagined in Philip Kaufman's brilliant film Quills.
In Hannibal, sequel to the wildly successful Silence of the Lambs, we follow Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) to Florence where he surfaces after a few post-escape years in exile. Scott relishes the location and uses it marvelously to convey Hannibal's otherworldliness -- he's a scholar in a prestigious Florentian library, lecturing on Dante's Inferno while, on the streets below, groups of Japanese tourists pose to have their photos taken and pickpockets roam the marble bedecked piazzas.
An Italian police inspector, played by an effectively world-weary Giancarlo Giannini, stumbles upon Lecter and decides to go for the $3 million reward offered by arch-enemy, Mason Verger (Gary Oldman), for his capture. Verger's a horribly deformed gazillionaire -- his face was once ripped off in a Hannibal encounter -- who wants to take his revenge by feeding his foe to a pack of man-eating boars. Meanwhile, FBI agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) is still on the case, stalking Hannibal at every turn, hoping to apprehend him before Verger feeds him to the hogs.
Hopkins is completely disarming with his greasy charm, and Moore works well as the matured, toughened Clarice, but Scott loses his way early in the film, allowing it to become a lurid comic book adventure featuring Verger and his henchmen as the bad guys. Any suspense is drowned out by the oddly giddy blood antics. For the most part, we end up being mildly entertained by the lovely art direction and camera work. Any discourse about the nature of evil is lost in the spectacle.
Quills, on the other hand, attempting to explore many complex themes, including the consequences of evil and the urge toward art, is remarkable for its very lightness. The story of the imprisoned Marquis (Geoffrey Rush), smuggling his salacious manuscripts out by way of the charming and disarmingly open and honest chambermaid Madeleine (Kate Winslet), is entertaining, provocative, disturbing and enlightening. And it is so deftly told that we are swept through the film and its dense content with relatively little effort.
The plot is deceptively simple -- Charenton, the asylum where the Marquis is locked up, has long been overseen by a forward-thinking priest, Abb Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who acts as protector to the fragile spirits who live there. When the emperor Napoleon becomes outraged at the continued publication of Sade's work, he dispatches the hideously cruel Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to "cure" the Marquis and to clean up Coulmier's operation. Royer-Collard's presence is met with resistance which is, in turn, met with more cruelty and control measures, and the conflict spirals into an ultimately tragic end.
Quills acts both as an intriguing story and an allegory about art. It is by turns hilarious and horrifying. In every instance, the underlying theme of the dangers of suppression is respected but is not allowed to deaden the flow. Rush, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, is spectacularly foul, and Phoenix, Caine and Winslet all provide intelligent, compelling supporting performances.