When Quills (2000, dir. Philip Kaufman, based on the play of the same name by Doug Wright) came out, it was received quite well by critics, who praised Geoffrey Rush’s performance as the Marquis de Sade, and it earned Rush his second Academy Award nomination. But it wasn’t so popular with historians, who pointed out its many historical inaccuracies. In particular, Neil Schaeffer, author of The Marquis de Sade: A Life, published a scathing critique of the film as being both inaccurate and simplistic in its depiction of the notorious pornographer. So the movie, like De Sade himself, was quite controversial. Sounds like fun!
De Sade’s Life
Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was a minor French noble born in the mid-18th century and the poster boy for everything wrong with the 18th century aristocracy. By the time he was 23, he had begun sexually assaulting prostitutes and employees of both sexes egregiously enough that the police began paying serious attention to him, no small accomplishment at a time when the aristocracy enjoyed substantial legal prerogatives. When he was 28, he hired a woman to be his housekeeper, but then tied her up, and repeatedly tortured her with knives and hot wax. Four years later, in 1772, he and his man-servant were convicted of sodomy and poisoning and fled to Italy to avoid a death sentence.
During all this, his mother-in-law had obtained a lettre de cachet, essentially an extra-judicial order of imprisonment. In 1777, he was lured back to Paris and arrested under the lettre and imprisoned, although he managed to get the death sentence overturned.
The Marquis de Sade
By 1789, when the French Revolution was brewing, he was being incarcerated in the notorious Bastille prison, and nearly triggered the Storming of the Bastille two weeks early when he shouted out a window that the prisoners were being murdered. Just days before the Storming liberated the inmates of the Bastille, de Sade was transferred to the Charenton asylum. But a year later, he was released when the National Assembly invalidated all lettres de cachet. At this point his long-suffering wife divorced him.
He managed to get himself elected to the National Convention and spent several years as a politician before getting on Maximilien Robespierre’s bad side and being arrested. But before he could be executed, Robespierre fell from power and he was released.
He had already begun producing the pornographic works he is famous for during his first imprisonment. In 1801, Napoleon ordered the arrest of the author of the anonymous paired pornographic novels, Justine and Juliette, and eventually the works were traced to de Sade and he was arrested and imprisoned once again. In 1803, his family arranged for him to be declared insane, and he was sent back to the Charenton Asylum, where he remained until his death from natural causes in 1814.
The director of Charenton was the Abbé de Coulmier, a Catholic priest known for his liberal attitudes toward the inmates in his charge. Coulmier rejected many of the harsh treatments that were popular at the time, such as the physical restraint of patients and the practice of dunking patients head-first in water. Instead, Coulmier favored therapies such as self-expression, diets, and purges. In particular, he believed that allowing patients to express themselves in writing, theater, and music was helpful.
Because of this, Coulmier allowed de Sade to stage popular French plays, using the inmates as actors, for the viewing pleasure of the Parisian public. But in 1809, police orders required de Sade to be put in solitary confinement and forbidden to write. This confinement turns out to have been not so solitary after all, because in 1810, he began a relationship with Madeleine LeClerc, the 14-year-old daughter of an employee at Charenton. He died in his sleep 4 years later.
The chapel at Charenten
De Sade’s Writings
Although de Sade is today mostly remembered as a pornographer and as the man who gave his name to ‘sadism’, he was more complex than that. Not all of his work was obscene; he wrote both political treatises and conventional plays, and he deserves to be ranked as a figure of the Enlightenment. And even his pornographic work is highly intellectual. His paired novels Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue and Juliette, or The Rewards of Vice tell the stories of two sisters raised in a convent. But whereas Justine strives to remain virtuous, Juliette comes to believe that morality, virtue, and religion are meaningless. Justine experiences a series of personal disasters, including becoming the unwilling sex-slave of a group of monks. Every good deed she does results in a further sexual assault, humiliation, or other catastrophe, and finally she is struck by lightning and dies, after which her corpse is sexually assaulted. But Juliette willingly engages in the most perverse behaviors possible, indulging in orgies and repeatedly murdering people. Her various accomplices commit rape, murder, incest, and cannibalism. She is ultimately rewarded with an audience with the pope, and the novel ends with another long orgy.
Despite the repulsive content, de Sade has a point to make. Several in fact. Like many 18th century intellectuals, he rejects conventional religion, and aggressively satirizes it; the clergy in his stories are often the most debauched characters. Given that the clergy enjoyed legal prerogatives as extensive as the nobility’s at this time, including immunity from taxation and most law courts and a strangle-hold on public religious life and education, de Sade’s attacks are remarkably bold and in favor of the separation of Church and State. Some have seen de Sade as challenging God to prove His existence by punishing de Sade’s blasphemies.
These two novels demonstrate the idea that virtue and vice are not neatly rewarded and condemned in real life, and the novels represent an effort to build an essentially atheistic moral paradigm celebrating the pursuit of pleasure as the only meaning in life. Nature consistently triumphs over the forces of civilization and restraint. (At least, that’s all assuming you read them seriously, and not as satire, as some scholars do.)
And de Sade’s slow corruption of Juliette, who gradually moves from simple sexual pleasures to full-blown sexual sadism of the most extreme sort, can be read as a challenge to the reader. How far are you willing to take your sexual fantasies? Will you at some point put the book down because you feel it is no longer titillating but rather disgusting, or will you allow the novel to corrupt you as it corrupts Juliette? These books may be deeply disturbing, but they’re also far more thought-provoking than most modern porn.
Nor was de Sade the only author in this period to intermingle pornography with philosophical musings. As the great intellectual historian Robert Darnton has pointed out, philosophical pornography was an extremely popular (if illegal) genre in 18th century France. Quite a few authors used obscene stories as a way to attack the French clergy and the French political system. De Sade’s novels are the most extreme, but he’s by no means the only author of the day to tell stories of priests fornicating in the confessional and monks debauching nuns during the Eucharist. He’s just the one we still remember.
So What Does Quills Make of All This?
The movie opens in 1794 with de Sade apparently writing a story about a woman who is guillotined during the French Revolution and then jumps to ‘years later’ with de Sade in the Charenton asylum. Instead of being sent there for having written Justine, he has written the novel and had it smuggled out of prison by Madeleine (Kate Winslet). Napoleon orders a stop to his publishing, and dispatches Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton to force Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) to crack down on de Sade’s privileges. Whereas Coulmier is gentle and believes in art therapy, Royer-Collard is old school and favors water-boarding patients. He also has a child bride Simone (Amelia Warner), whom he rather sadistically has sex with on their wedding night.
Geoffrey Rush as de Sade
Antoine-Athenaise Royer-Collard is a real person. In 1806, he was appointed chief physician at Charenton, where he became convinced that de Sade was sane and ought to be in a conventional prison. But his function here is to be the catalyst for everything going wrong at the asylum. Prior to his arrival, de Sade and Coulmier are friends, with de Sade seeking to express his disturbed thoughts on paper.
But Royer-Collard’s attempts to restrain de Sade trigger a contest of wills between the two men, with Coulmier caught in the middle. Royer-Collard’s harsh treatment of his young wife becomes gossip that reaches de Sade’s ears, so de Sade stages a play that is a thinly-veiled sex farce of the marriage. Simone, who sees the first part of the play, becomes interested in de Sade’s writings and secretly tracks down a copy of Justine. Corrupted by it, she runs off with a young architect, played by Stephen Moyer.
Furious at this, Royer-Collard leans on Coulmier, forcing him to gradually restrict de Sade’s privileges. When he takes away de Sade’s writing implements, de Sade figures out how to write with red wine on his bed sheets. When the bed is taken away, he writes in blood on his own clothes. Coulmier states the whole point of the film when he says to de Sade, “The more I forbid, the more you’re provoked.” De Sade points out that Coulmier finds it arousing to have so much power over him.
Joaquin Phoenix as Coulmier
Finally, naked and with nothing in his cell, he arranges to dictate a story to Madeleine through a chain of inmates, like an obscene game of Telephone. But one of the aroused inmates intentionally lights a fire, and in the confusion, another inmate rapes and murders Madeleine. Coulmier, who has fallen deeply in lust with the woman thanks to de Sade’s corrosive influence, apparently has sex with her corpse, and then has de Sade’s tongue cut out after water-boarding him. Chained in a cell, de Sade continues writing, using his own feces as ink. He dies in Coulmier’s arms, rejecting the crucifix the priest offers him.
The movie ends with Coulmier now imprisoned in de Sade’s old room, begging a visitor for paper and quill so he can write. He finally understands de Sade’s compulsion to write.
Hopefully from this summary, it should be clear that the film starts off somewhat shaky on the facts, since de Sade didn’t write Justine in prison, because that’s what he was imprisoned for. But it rattles along in the right general historical direction until, in the last hour, the train jumps the track and goes veering off into Crazyland at full speed, bearing its passengers to a world of hurt none of them bought a ticket for.
De Sade is somewhere between a full-blown lunatic with a sexual fixation and a martyr for the cause of free speech. The film can’t quite decide what’s really motivating him. On the one hand, his erotic writing appears to be a symptom of some mental illness; he is literally incapable of not writing, despite the increasing misery it’s causing him. And by the end of the film, he’s infected both Coulmier and arguably Madeleine with his madness.
Coulmier, about to do the literal nasty with Madeleine’s corpse
But on the other hand, he’s engaging in a willful defiance of Royer-Collard’s efforts to silence him. The two men fall into a chess match; each action by Royer-Collard to stop de Sade from writing elicits a response from de Sade in which he seeks to demonstrate the doctor’s ultimate impotence to control him. It is Royer-Collard’s efforts to still de Sade’s pen that triggers the next round of outrageous writing, and the marquis’ writings that trigger the next crack-down.
De Sade’s ideas corrupt everyone around him, driving them to lust, in the case of Coulmier, Simone, and the architect, or madness, in the case of the inmates who participate in his telephone game of dictation. Madeleine craves more stories from de Sade and is ultimately killed by the process of dictation, as is de Sade himself. The only character not corrupted by de Sade is Royer-Collard, who is already more of a sadist than de Sade. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea if your martyr for freedom of the press is a man whose writings literally corrupt and destroy those who read them.
Michael Caine as Royer-Collard
From a historical standpoint, the problem with Quills is that it too readily accepts the idea of de Sade as a charming madman and barely entertains the possibility that perhaps de Sade was actually trying to actually say something. And it soft-pedals the more literally sadistic elements of his writings. From the snippets of his stories that we hear, de Sade likes to talk about penises and vaginas a lot, and he readily mocks Christianity, but there’s only faint hints that he was also writing about rape, murder, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, and a host of other disturbing things.
So for me at least, Quills doesn’t really work. It fails to grapple effectively with what the historical de Sade was trying to say, and it fails to offer a coherent message about who this man was and why he wrote such outrageous things. In a way, watching the movie feels a bit like reading Justine; instead of sympathizing with any of the characters or being turned on by its decadence, I just wanted to take a shower and put the whole experience behind me.
Want to Know More?
Quills is available on Amazon.
If you’d like to learn more about the Marquis de Sade, start with Neil Shaeffer’s The Marquis de Sade: A Life. If you want to sample de Sade’s writings, both Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (Oxford World’s Classics)
and Juliette are readily available. But be warned: they are pretty much as hard-core as pornography gets, and they’re not for the easily offended or disgusted.