Quills is a 2000 period drama directed by Philip Kaufman and adapted from the Obie award-winning play by Doug Wright, who also wrote the original screenplay. Inspired by the life and work of the Marquis de Sade, Quills re-imagines the last years of the Marquis' incarceration in the insane asylum at Charenton. It stars Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, Joaquin Phoenix as the Abbé du Coulmier, Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard, and Kate Winslet as laundress Madeleine "Maddie" LeClerc.
Well-received by critics, Quills garnered numerous accolades for star Geoffrey Rush, including nominations for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. The film was a modest art house success, averaging $27,709 per screen its debut weekend, and eventually grossing $17,989,277 internationally. Cited by historians as factually inaccurate, Quills filmmakers and writers said they were not making a biography of de Sade, but exploring issues such as censorship, pornography, sex, art, mental illness, and religion.
Quills begins during the Reign of Terror, with the incarcerated Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) penning a story about the libidinous Mademoiselle Renare, an aristocrat who meets the preeminent sadist in her executioner.
The film resumes several years later with the Marquis confined to the asylum at Charenton, overseen by the enlightened Abbé du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix). The Marquis has been publishing his work through laundress Madeleine "Maddy" LeClerc (Kate Winslet), who smuggles manuscripts through an anonymous horseman (Tom Ward) to a publisher. The Marquis' latest work, Justine, is published on the black market to great success. Napoleon (Ron Cook) orders all copies of the book burned and the author shot, but his advisor, Delbené (Patrick Malahide), tempers this contentious idea with one of his own: send traditionalist Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to look in at Charenton and silence the Marquis.
Dr. Royer-Collard arrives, informing the Abbé that the Marquis' "therapeutic writings" have been distributed for public consumption. Horrified, the Abbé rejects Royer-Collard's offers of several archaic "treatments" and asks to speak with the Marquis himself, who promptly swears obedience (winking at Madeleine through a peephole). Royer-Collard takes his leave for the time being and travels to the Panthemont Convent in Paris to retrieve his promised bride, the underage Simone (Amelia Warner). They are gifted a run-down chateau by the Emperor, with a handsome young architect, Prouix (Stephen Moyer) on hand for its renovation.
The hasty marriage incites much gossip at the asylum, prompting the Marquis to write a farce to be performed at a public exhibition. The audacious play, titled "The Crimes of Love", is interrupted when the inmate Bouchon (British character actor Stephen Marcus) molests Madeleine off-stage, prompting her to hit him in the face with an iron. Royer-Collard shuts down the public theater and demands that the Abbé do more to control the Marquis. Infuriated, the Abbé confiscates the Marquis' quills and ink, prompting more subversive behavior, including a story written in blood on clothing. This results in further deprivation, eventually leaving the Marquis naked in an empty cell.
While this is occurring at the asylum, Simone has been violently introduced to the adult world by her husband. She unrepentantly purchases a copy of the Marquis de Sade's Justine, seduces Prioux, and the young lovers run off together. She leaves behind a letter explaining her actions and her copy of Justine. Upon finding this, Dr. Royer-Collard seizes on the Marquis as the source of his troubles and embarks upon a quest for revenge.
About to be sent away from Charenton for her role in assisting the Marquis, Madeleine begs a last story from him, which is to be relayed to her through the asylum patients. Bouchon, the inmate at the end of the relay, is excited by the story, breaks out of his cell, and kills Madeleine. The asylum is set afire by the pyromaniac Dauphin (George Yiasoumi) and the inmates break out of their cells.
Madeline's body is found by her blind mother in the laundry vat and Bouchon is captured and imprisoned inside an iron dummy. The Abbé blames the Marquis for Madeleine's death and prods him into a fury. The Marquis claims he had been with Madeleine in every way imaginable, only to be told she had died a virgin. The Abbé cuts out the Marquis' tongue as punishment for his involvement. The Marquis' health declines severely, though perverse as ever, he decorates his oubliette with a story, using feces as ink. As the Abbé finishes reading the last rites, he offers the Marquis a crucifix to kiss, which he swallows and chokes on, thus committing suicide.
A year later, the new Abbé du Maupas (Alex Avery) arrives at Charenton and is given the grand tour. The asylum has been converted into a printing press, with the inmates as its staff. The books being printed are the works of the Marquis de Sade. At the end of the tour, the new Abbé meets his predecessor, who resides in the Marquis' old cell. Yearning to write, he begs paper and a quill from the Abbé, who is herded off by Royer-Collard, now overseer of the asylum. However, the peephole opens, and Madeleine's mother thrusts paper, quill, and ink through. The Abbé begins to scribble furiously, with the Marquis providing the narration.
The film was not without its detractors, including Richard Schickel of TIME Magazine, who decried director Philip Kaufman's approach as “brutally horrific, vulgarly unamusing,” creating a film that succeeds only as “soft-gore porn.” Eleanor Ringel Gillespie of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution concurred, finding Quills “shrill, pretentious, sophomoric and often just plain dumb.” Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times dismissed the film as an “overripe contrivance masquerading as high art., while de Sade biographer Neil Schaeffer in the The Guardian criticized the film for historical inaccuracies and for simplifying de Sade's complex life (see below).
Quills received three Oscar nominations at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards for Actor in a Leading Role (Geoffrey Rush, previous winner for the 1996 movie Shine), Art Direction (Art: Martin Childs, Sets: Jill Quertier), and Costume Design (Jacqueline West). The film was also nominated by the Hollywood Foreign Press, organizers of the Golden Globes, for Best Actor in a Drama (Geoffrey Rush) and Best Screenplay (Douglas Wright). The National Board of Review selected Quills as its Best Film of 2000.
Neil Schaeffer, whose The Marquis de Sade: A Life had been used by Director Philip Kaufman as reference, in a review published in The Guardian criticized the film for historical inaccuracies and for simplifying de Sade's complex life.
Schaeffer especially criticized the depiction of the de Sade as a "martyr to the oppression and censorship of church and state" and the films' sacrificing facts to "to a surreal and didactic conclusion that has no connection with the truth, and is probably overwrought even as a twist of a fictional plot", namely that "the seemingly good people are all bad underneath, are all hypocrites, while the seemingly bad person, De Sade, probably has some redeeming qualities".
Schaeffer detailed a number of disparities between fact and film:
Schaeffer relates that de Sade's initial incarceration "had nothing to do with his writing" but with sexual scandals involving servants, prostitutes and his sister-in-law. He also criticized the opening scene's implication that the reign of terror caused the "sanguinary streak" of de Sade's writing, when "his bloodiest and best work, 120 Days of Sodom, was written in the Bastille - obviously before the revolution" and not at Charenton, as suggested by the film. In contrast to the film, the historical de Sade was "not at the height of his literary career nor of his literary powers" while at Charenton, nor did he cut the "tall, trim figure of the Australian actor Geoffrey Rush" but was of middling height and, at the time, of a "considerable, even a grotesque, obesity".
The manuscripts smuggled out of the asylum were not the novel Justine, which features prominently in the film but was published thirteen years before de Sade's incarceration at the asylum. De Sade's smuggled works were not particularly outrageous, mostly consisting of conventional novels and a number of plays he worked on throughout his life in hopes of having them performed. Most of these were soundly rejected by publishers. De Sade was, in fact, involved in the theater productions at Charenton, though none like the play featured in Quills. The plays performed were popular, conventional Parisian dramas. The government shut the Charenton theater down on May 6, 1813 - years before Dr. Royer-Collard's had any influence at Charenton.
Schaeffer criticized also the film's treatment of Sade's personal relations regarding his wife (who had formally separated from him after the revolution), the chambermaid (which did not serve as a liaison to a publisher but with whom he had a sexual relationship from her early teens until shortly before his death) and his "companion of many years", who had a room at Charenton (and actually smuggled out the manuscripts) but is ignored by the film. Furthermore, "De Sade's hideous death in the movie is nothing like the truth, for he died in his sleep, in his 74th year, as peacefully as any good Christian".
Schaeffer argues that the main point of De Sade's life and writing was not, "as movie-makers and reviewers alike seem to think [...] to oppose censorship" but "to push the limits - sexual, spiritual, and political - as a means of feeling out the limits of his times and of his own mind." Schaeffer criticized that the film "simplifies De Sade into a modern "victim" and over-emphasises his potential as a focus for liberal-political meanings when, in fact, his life and perhaps his literary intentions - if you think of him as a satirist - can be seen as an object lesson, warning against the excesses of cultural relativism and nihilism; a very modern lesson, it would seem."
Schaeffer advised the viewer to distinguish between de Sade and the protagonist of the film: "To see if Quills is valid in its own terms, let the viewer imagine it is about someone else, let us say the Marquis de Newcastle, and that the scene is Bedlam and then see if the movie makes any sense."