Rating: * * * * Director: Philip Kaufman Running time: 123 minutes Language: EnglishShowing at Hibiya Scalaza and other theaters

The face of a beautiful woman appears in intense close-up, her fair skin offset by the clear blue sky behind her. The faint sighs of her soft, heavy breath are amplified erotically on the soundtrack. Her eyes open and shut lazily, her muscles going limp as she seems ready to swoon in ecstasy -- or so we think.

Actually, it's pure fear. The camera pulls back to reveal a beefy man in a black executioner's hood; he places the young woman's head on a guillotine, its blade raised and poised. It's the Terror of Paris in 1794, and the view we share is that of the Marquis de Sade, watching from his jail cell as the French aristocracy are beheaded one by one.

This is the magnificent opening shot of "Quills," director Philip Kaufman's black comedy-cum-thriller loosely based on the last days of Sade. It instantly catches us off guard, introducing us to Sade's perverted gaze even as we are made complicit in it. But while this shot establishes the Marquis' well-known taste for pain and pleasure in tandem ("How easily, dear reader, one changes from predator to prey," he hisses in voice-over as the blade drops), it also drops us right into the milieu of violent retribution from which Sade's writing emerged.