Though historically inaccurate, this film effectively tackles issues of censorship and the limits of free expression.
Directed by Philip Kaufman, Quills (2000) is based on a play of the same name by Doug Wright. It is a quasi-historical movie about the infamous writer Marquis de Sade and his internment in Charenton asylum in post-revolutionary France. Though not financially successful, its performances, costumes, and sets won praise from critics and audiences alike.
At the Charenton Asylum, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) has been under the care of Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a liberal clergyman who encourages De Sade to write and produce plays, which are performed by the inmates at the asylum. Unbeknownst to him, De Sade has been sneaking out his manuscripts for publication with the help of laundress Madeleine (Kate Winslet). Scandalized, Emperor Napoleon orders Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to take over Charenton and reform its notorious inmate.
A battle of wills ensues between De Sade and Royer-Collard, with Abbe Coulmier and Madeleine caught in the middle. The more Royer-Collard tries to break De Sade, the more defiant and outlandish De Sade becomes. The inmate is determined to expose Royer-Collard’s hypocrisy, centered around his marriage to his much younger wife, Simone (Amelia Warner). Can Abbe Coulmier save De Sade’s soul (and his own) before it’s too late?
Quills is first and foremost an exploration of censorship and free expression. Are De Sade’s provocative stories harmless entertainment, or genuinely subversive and dangerous? Is De Sade a raving lunatic, or a martyr to the cause of free speech? It asks the audience to actively engage with the ethical and moral questions played out on screen.
Historically, Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) was a French aristocrat imprisoned several times for crimes including blasphemy and sodomy. He became a revolutionary politician and anonymously authored several erotic novels, including Justine, 120 Days of Sodom, and Juliette. He spent his twilight years imprisoned in Charenton Asylum after Napoleon Bonaparte ordered his arrest. At Charenton, under the care of Abbé de Coulmier, de Sade had an affair with a 14-year-old maid, Madeleine LeClerc.
Royer-Collard arrived at Charenton in 1806. In contrast with the film, he did not believe de Sade was insane and petitioned to have him sent to a regular prison. De Sade died of old age in his sleep, his son burnt most of his manuscripts, and his books were banned in France until 1957. In the 1960s, De Sade’s writings were recirculated, embraced by postmodern philosophers like Michel Foucault.
Even before its December 2000 release, historians criticized Quills for its historical inaccuracies. According to Neil Schaeffer, author of The Marquis de Sade: A Life (1999), De Sade did most of his controversial writing before the French Revolution and his internment at Charenton. In his later years, he became morbidly obese and was long estranged from his wife. In fact, a female admirer who requested a room at the asylum smuggled out his writing, not the young teenage maid Madeleine.
Despite an Oscar nomination for Geoffrey Rush, Quills was not financially successful. It only made $7 million on a $13.5 million budget in the US. It’s not surprising a movie about an eighteenth century French author wasn’t a blockbuster, however, it does have a 75% positive critic and 83% audience rating on RottenTomatoes.
On one hand, it’s a shame most viewers will come away from this film with a distorted picture of Marquis de Sade’s life. On the other, it is an incredibly effective piece of filmmaking that uses historical figures to get its point across. Like Arthur Miller poignantly tackled moral panic in The Crucible, Quills dissects censorship and the limits of free expression. History is merely a vessel to discuss a much larger social issue.