on November 24, 2000 by Annlee Ellingson
   Philip Kaufman, whose "Henry & June" was the first NC-17-rated film, ups the ante with a fictional account of the final days of history's most infamous pervert with a pen, the Marquis de Sade.

   Geoffrey Rush stars as the institutionalized erotic novelist whose compulsion to write is encouraged by Abbe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who governs the Charenton Asylum by his humanistic principles. Believing that the Marquis is purging "his evil thoughts upon the page," Abbe is unaware that innocent chambermaid Madeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet) is smuggling the audacious writings out of the asylum and into the hands of eager readers. Determined to muzzle the Marquis by any means necessary, Napolean assigns Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to the asylum in an advisory position; it soon becomes clear to the doctor that Abbe's ardent appeals to the Marquis are doing no good and more severe tactics are necessary.

   Rush relishes his role, delivering screenwriter Doug Wright's unexpectedly funny lines with lascivious glee while still bringing a certain gravity to the character as he suffers increasingly humiliating torture at the hands of Dr. Royer-Collard. Winslet, who post-"Titanic" has reliably chosen interesting and challenging projects, is likewise captivating as a virginal young woman who nonetheless zealously devours the Marquis' prose and passes it on to others. Winslet captures both the beauty and the spirit of the character who acts as the apex in a love triangle among her, the Abbe and his most controversial patient, and ultimately sacrifices her virtue to the horrors of her environment.

   Juxtaposing such challenging themes as pornography, mental illness and religion, Wright, adapting his stage play, still manages to lighten things up, particularly in the Marquis' scathingly sarcastic dialogue. In addition to a multitude of double entendres--he exclaims "Bottoms up!" when sharing a glass of wine with Madeleine--the Marquis repeatedly confronts Abbe's staunch Catholicism, sneering, "[God] strung up his own son like a side of veal. I shudder to think what he'd do to me."    Starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine. Directed by Philip Kaufman. Written by Doug Wright. Produced by Julia Chasman, Nick Wechsler and Peter Kaufman. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexual content including dialogue, violence and language. Running time: 120 min.

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