The very mention of the Marquis de Sade calls to mind debaucherous libertines in powdered wigs, buckled shoes, and ruffled shirts, engaging in dangerous liaisons with an orgiastic fervor. While these images are by no means groundless, the Marquis’ infamous and explicit literature inspired, and continues to inspire, serious debate surrounding censorship and the relationship between fiction and morality. And if we believe all that Philip Kaufman’s Quills has to tell us about the man, Sade is much more than a randy aristocrat—he is a champion of free speech and artistic integrity.
Adapted by Doug Wright from his own play, Quills is a fictional account of the Marquis de Sade’s factual internment in Paris’s Charenton Asylum for the Insane at the turn of the 19th century. Nearly the entire film is set on the grounds of the asylum, whose bleak stone walls, iron bars, and dank rooms make the atmosphere appropriately repressive. Director Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Henry and June), production designer Martin Childs, and cinematographer Rogier Stoffers compose these scenes to amplify the surreal and maddening effects of the asylum, which is clearly not a place to rehabilitate, but rather to lock away the inmates. Just so, the resident “imbeciles”—unfortunate souls suffering various mental afflictions—become so many caricatures of insanity, hooting, drooling, and shuffling, almost as backdrop for the main action. Such a backdrop is important for the film’s point, however, because it juxtaposes and also mirrors French society at the end of the Reign of Terror, when Robespierre rose to power and had aristocrats and monarchists throughout the country guillotined. Sade was, in fact, transferred to Charenton from the Bastille (where he was imprisoned on charges of sodomy unrelated to the political punishments meted out during the Terror) just ten days before the Bastille was famously stormed by an angry mob of French peasantry.
As the film’s opening moments illustrate, the Reign of Terror was indeed terrible. The camera opens on the face of an unidentified young woman, contorted in spasms of what could be either pleasure or pain. As two huge hands—dirty and masculine—close around her throat, the woman’s excitement and fear visibly increase. The scene is charged with an undercurrent of sexual tension before the camera pans swiftly back to reveal the young woman to be the latest unfortunate member of the bourgeoisie to face execution at the grubby hands of guillotine master. A crowd gathers eagerly around the spectacle, its bloodlust unsated by the previous dozen executions—implied by the wagonfull of headless corpses at the foot of the execution platform. The Marquis de Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) looks down through a tower window on the scene from above, perhaps merely interested, perhaps passing his own judgment. The scene—and Sade’s hard-to-read response to it—call into question the assignment and maintenance of “sanity” in his society, one that condemns and incarcerates him for his explicit writings, while at the same publicly decapitating human beings for mass entertainment. And, when on any given evening tv viewers can tune into a spectacularly violent show like Cops or home video programs with titles as evocative as When Animals Attack, Part 7 , or indulge in the many texts dealing with serial killers and monsters, Quills is also questioning our own hypocrisies in judging sanity, morality, or “family values” while simultaneously reveling in such spectacular displays of violence.
In this context, then, Quills portrays Sade as continually besieged by public polemics against his controversial writings. His sexually explicit fare can not be tolerated by the God-fearing French lawmakers, even though, as the exasperated Marquis points out in his own defense, “It’s fiction, not a moral treatise.” While the streets of Sade’s France literally ran with blood, he seems justified in questioning the logic of censoring his make-believe while beheadings were a daily occurrence. Then and now, the cultural fascination with real life violence is too readily overlooked when, by contrast, works of fiction describing sexual acts face comparatively stiff censorship under the supposed guise of moral righteousness. In confronting such hypocrisy, Rush’s Sade is by turns wickedly provocative and agonizingly frustrated. At all times, Rush’s Sade is overtly lustful and lascivious. When he asks, “Who doesn’t dream of indulging every spasm of lust?”, it is clear that Sade (suggestively licking his lips in one scene, flashing a hungry glance toward a servant girl in another) can be included in this group.
Standing against the Marquis in the interest of public decency is the Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the priest officially in charge of Charenton. A far cry from the four-foot tall hunchback that Coulmier was in real life, Phoenix is nevertheless convincing as a man conflicted over his abiding respect for his friend, the Marquis, and his need to censor Sade’s increasingly erratic behavior and shocking writings. The Marquis is shown to have an overwhelming compulsion to write—an almost pathological obsession that forces the Abbe first to remove his patient’s quills and ink, followed next by his furniture when he writes with red wine and a wishbone upon a bed sheet, and eventually, all his clothing when he inks a story in his own blood upon his clothes. Still, as the end of the story graphically details, the Abbe’s efforts cannot fully depirve the wily Sade ofwriting… material, shall we say.
In yet another attempt to control the wayward author, the state brings in Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Cain), a tyrannical psychologist with a reputation for harsh treatment. As the doctor, Cain is effective if not imaginative, though he is not wholly to blame. The script paints Royer-Collard as an unrepentant hypocrite of almost cartoonish proportions. Whether he is subjecting his new underage bride (Amelia Warner) to his unwanted sexual advances, forcibly dunking mental patients in water to “improve” their conditions, or ordering the disobedient servant girl Madeleine (played flawlessly by Kate Winslet) to be flogged publicly, the doctor embraces cruelty as much as the Marquis embraces sexual excess. While it may be hard to see the lecherous Sade as a traditional hero, in Quills, it is painfully obvious just who the villain is.
This villain must be written blatantly, though, because the film’s defense of Sade depends on the stark contrast between his desire for creative expression and the mercilessly repressive forces embodied in Dr. Royer-Collard. In fact, when he’s stripped naked in his cell, the pale and stringy-haired Sade is a visual reminder of another, more modern, figure of moral controversy and questionable taste. Though the time for Marilyn Manson’s iconoclastic crusade may have passed (his latest album garnering few sales and little moral outrage), the singer’s controversial history—especially the accusations concerning his responsibility for the murders at Columbine High School—demonstrates how easily provocative art can become the scapegoat for society’s ills. Two hundred years after the Marquis was forcibly silenced by a repressive French regime, outraged parents and religious groups managed to disrupt a Manson tour (mainly in the Bible-thumping heart of the Midwestern U.S.) with many of the same charges. Such outraged responses suggest that the demonized Marquis de Sade and the questions he posed concerning legislation of speech or thought remain relevant.
According to Quills, such questions can become a matter of life and death. The Marquis’ defiance of both Dr. Royer-Collard and Abbe Coulmier shows his staunch rejection of any efforts to quell his self-expression. No longer satisfied with simply being the devil’s advocate, Sade becomes increasingly devilish in his own right—sexually taunting the Abbe and unwittingly inciting a riot among his fellow inmates with another erotic tale. The film, as a consequence, takes a dark turn. Rape and murder befall well-intentioned characters as an indirect result of Sade’s agitations, revealing a dire price to be paid for his artistic statements. And yet, Sade continues to defend his art, claiming, “In order to know virtue, we must acquaint ourselves with vice. Only then can we know the full measure of Man.” Quills acquaints us with vice, suggesting that the dark side of humanity is not to be found in the Marquis’ sexual appetites but instead in the fevered and hypocritical compulsion to eradicate any behavior or opinion that does not toe the line drawn by the moral majority.