Starring: Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet
Director: Philip Kaufman
Awards: Academy Award Nominee
Every writer's dream is to be so overcome by a passion to express
and create that writing itself becomes an obsession. When this happens,
concern for anything else -- loved ones, external strictures, even physical
needs like food and water -- is dispelled. While few writers actually
attain this state of fecund rapture, the infamous Marquis de Sade was
one who did.
Although at times a difficult film to watch, Quills is nearly unrivaled
in its portrayal of a man who's true devotion to writing is his
lifeblood. "My writing is like the beating of my heart," de
Sade tells his captor, the conflicted Abbe de Coulmier (played by Joaquin
Phoenix), who encourages de Sade to write as "a purgative for [his]
Quills, directed by Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
The Right Stuff, Henry and June -- see chapter 4) is not a strictly
historical biography. The screenplay by Doug Wright was adapted from
his 1995 Broadway play of the same title. Here de Sade -- brilliantly
depicted as a flamboyant pansexual with gleeful elan by Geoffrey Rush
-- has been imprisoned in Charenton Asylum by the order of the Emperor
Napoleon Bonaparte, no less, who views de Sade's writings as "the
most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination."
But for de Sade, "Art is waiting to be born" -- irregardless
of his circumstances. Ironically, it was this very incarceration in
a luxuriously furnished cell that afforded him both the time and privacy
needed to produce his pornographic works.
In the film it is the succulent Madeleine (Kate Winslet), a virginal
prison laundress, who inspires de Sade as would a Muse, and equally
serves as a conspirator by smuggling his scandalous pages -- so freshly
written that "the ink is still wet," he teasingly rebukes
-- to a waiting horseman and subsequent printer. Although Madeleine
is a member of the lower class, her native intelligence and desire to
learn -- "Reading is my salvation," she tells the Abbe --
make her more than just an attractive body to the marquis.
After de Sade's Justine is published, the essentially good Abbe
Coulmier is pressured into revoking the marquis's writing privileges.
It is at this point that de Sade's character begins to make its
slow transformation from sociopathic confidence and spoiled conviviality
to an artist's desperation for personal expression. After his quills
and paper are removed from his room, de Sade, at meal time, ingeniously
ravages a plump roasted chicken until he tears free the wishbone; and
for ink, there is always the decanter of red wine. The sheets upon which
he writes are not made of paper, but are the linen ones on which he
sleeps. Back in business, de Sade hums a tune of pleasure as he sets
forth word after word. Madeleine then takes the sheets and copies out
the work on paper. It seems like a workable solution until the claret-colored
sheets are discovered.
No more wine . . . or bones, for that matter. Sade's room is emptied
of all creature comforts, save a mirror and his clothes. The marquis
then uses the first "ink" of humankind: blood. After breaking
the mirror, he pricks each finger until all ten are raw with wounds
and bound up with strips torn from his waistcoat. A mirror shard has
served both as needle and writing increment. His clothes -- jacket,
vest, shirt, trousers, socks, even shoes -- are now a tableau of literary
vignettes. "My writing lives!" he shouts like a thrilled and
But his ingenuity is unappreciated. When at last it seems as if there
is nothing more of which to deprive him, in humiliation de Sade is stripped
even of his clothes. The metaphor is powerful: a writer without words
When it seems that every recourse has been denied him, in a state of
mental and emotional anguish, de Sade -- an artist possessed -- devises
a plan to transport brief passages of a new story in a kind of vocal
relay of messengers through the walls of the prison, from one inmate
to the next, until, at the end of the line, Madeleine transcribes his
words. Unfortunately, this scheme results in tragic consequences.
Then the marquis is physically tortured and placed in a dungeon. Like
an abused animal or an abandoned child, he is left, to the squalor of
his own feces, which -- out of sheer desperation -- he uses to write
his final words.
The act of writing is a writer's redemption.
The Marquis de Sade was a writer. One may or may not appreciate his
controversially lascivious material; but he was a writer who wrote everyday
for some forty years. And during his lifetime in the late-eighteenth
and early-nineteenth centuries, laptops did not exist. Writers wrote
by hand. (Indeed, as for fifteen hundred years they had written the
world's classical literature.) In a sense the notion of a quill
as a writing implement bears a metaphoric loftiness, multifarious permutations
of writing and spirituality. A quill is a feather from a winged creature:
to write with "wings" is to fly, to soar through imaginative
realms, to approach the gods.
Copyright by Cathleen Rountree July 2002