The Marquis de Sade was kind of a hack.
The infamous degenerate who made his name as one of the wildest libertines of his era has cast an immense shadow over history with his writings, which revelled in excruciating details of sex, violence and blasphemy. The nature of his work was so transgressive that Napoleon himself ordered that Sade be arrested. He spent the final 13 years of his life in the Charenton Asylum, where he wielded a surprising level of creative power.
Scholars have argued for centuries over Sade’s life and impact, struggling to decide whether he was an anti-establishment freedom fighter or a mere pervert with a pen. What most academics tend to overlook is the simple fact that his writing wasn’t very good. It’s the kind of perfunctory prose describing the most upsetting of acts that can be found on any 4Chan forum, and his descriptions of sex itself vary from overblown gothic to unintentional hilarity.
Of course, literary merit was probably not Sade’s primary focus, and as depicted in Philip Kaufman’s Quills, the poor quality of the work itself did little to quash its power. Based on the play by Doug Wright, Quills is a fictionalised dramatization of Sade’s (Geoffrey Rush) years in prison. It follows him as he wiles away the days exploiting the goodwill of his kindly jailor, the Abbé de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), and secretly writing new stories to be sent into polite society and cause further aggravation to Napoleon. A doctor of harsher repute (Michael Caine) is sent in to clamp down on the problem, which only encourages Sade to delve deeper into his glorious obscenities, through any means possible.
Wright did not include Sade’s actual work in the screenplay for fear of plagiarism accusations. He took up the quill and wrote a few paragraphs of filth that evoke his style: cringe-inducing camp. Sex is a commonly used tool in storytelling, but erotica is seldom given the same kind of focus. That’s partly because, despite what many more highbrow critics may believe, writing good sex is extremely difficult. There are only so many florid metaphors for genitalia you can use before the audience starts laughing.
Sade, as written by Wright, is a cross between Barbara Cartland and Hustler Magazine: blatant in its desire to offend, but still giddy enough to talk about being licked by thousands of “unholy tongues.”
When his work is read aloud, be it by scandalized society or the asylum’s highly entertained workers, it inspires giggles, the kind elicited when people have no idea how to properly react to something. Even those who find real pleasure in his stories can’t help but laugh a little.
For some, his work is titillation, for others it’s pointless rabblerousing. Few characters seem to use erotica in Quills with the explicit purpose of sexual gratification or inspiration. For most, it is mindless entertainment to be shared amongst friends. For Napoleon and the upper echelons of society, it is a call to arms in the aftermath of the guillotine. But one character in particular finds true worth in it.
Madeleine (Kate Winslet), the laundry maid who assists Sade in sending his work into the wild, uses his depraved stories as emotional catharsis. The fantasy of his work is enough for her, even amidst increasing chaos around her. As Napoleon demands further censorship and the limits of creativity are debated, she’s the only one who seems to understand that reality and fiction can co-exist with little crossover. She tells the Abbé, “If I wasn’t such a bad woman on the page, I couldn’t be such a good woman in life.” This hobby of hers is so harmless in her eyes that it can be shared with her mother. For an evening’s entertainment, Madeleine reads aloud Sade’s newest story—a tale of necrophilia—and the pair laugh heartily together.
For a film all about the inspirational power of fucking, there’s not that much of it in the actual story. A few asylum stable hands romp in the hay, but Charenton is not a place of passion, even with France’s most infamous pervert behind its walls. His preoccupation lies in a more creative field. Sex is acted out for fun and shock, climaxing in one infamous scene, reminiscent of the play Marat/Sade, where the Marquis directs his fellow inmates in a rousing comedy of manners evoking the malicious doctor’s own coupling with his teen bride. Like a Noel Coward creation, the gleeful writer-director Sade guides his actors in a rousing satire of hypocrisy and manipulation, all while the target watches in barely concealed fury.
Sade is good at talk, and delights in bawdy wordplay with a dash of single entendres that would put Mae West to shame. Indeed, Rush noted how much of the dialogue was styled after B-movies of the ‘40s and threw some Barbara Stanwyck into his performance. Sade tries to seduce Madeleine, but never seems to truly mind when she refutes his advances; he toys with the Abbé by stripping before him and offering oral sex, knowing full well he’ll never ask for it. Even his beleaguered wife, who has done nothing but suffer for him, holds no interest for his libido.
His true pleasure comes from literary transgressions, and the knowledge that he’ll never be silenced. It is, by his own admission, his “constant erection.” While is prose is limited and his topic choices obscene, the Abbé’s main criticism seems to be his “puny scope.” To this, Sade argues that, “I write of the great, eternal truths that bind together all mankind. The whole world over, we eat, we shit, we fuck, we kill, and we die.” For a man with such a nihilistic view of the world, he takes much glee in depicting it.
After Sade’s publishing liaisons are exposed, the Abbé is torn between political duty and his godly vows. He begins to strip his prisoner, with whom he had previously shared warm relations, of his freedoms. Yet no matter how cruel the Abbé becomes, Sade finds a way to write: His writing implements are removed, so he writes on the bedsheets with wine; the bed is removed, so he slices his fingers open and uses his blood for ink across his clothes; he is stripped naked, so he turns to the inmates, initiating a Chinese whispers game of dirty story-time across the cells for Madeleine to transcribe.
In this instance, his penultimate burst of creativity, he offers his usual baroque stylings to tell a dark tale of lust turned violent. But as it passes from person to person, the prose is shortened and simplified until it describes the bare bones of the act itself, more instruction than storytelling. Sade is drolly amused by this, noting to himself, “My glorious prose filtered through the minds of the insane. Who knows, they might improve it.”
The ultimate effect, as the story builds to its violent climax, is that his words inspire revolt, and one mentally ill patient decides to re-enact the mutilation whispered into his ears. Sade’s works, so staunchly defended by Madeleine as simple fantasy, are the inspiration for her murder, as the patient slices out her tongue and leaves her for dead in the washer room. Scattered across the floor are the pages she transcribed, Sade’s final gift to her.
Madeleine’s death is the final straw for the grieving Abbé. Up until her death, his relationship with her had frequently bordered on romantic, with Madeleine open about her feelings for him and the pair kissing once before the Abbé refuted her advances. Where Sade saw no shame in sex—even though he’s never seen engaging in it—the Abbé sought refuge in his faith, turning to self-flagellation to keep the thoughts away. No doubt that Sade would have seen the irony in his friend-turned-antagonist using sado-masochistic means to stay in line with God.
The Abbé, haunted by his rejection of Madeleine and subsequent dreams of her following her death, willingly sinks into spiritual damnation to stop Sade once and for all by cutting out his tongue (in the play, his hands and penis are also removed). It’s a futile gesture, noted by Sade himself, as the vice is put in place around his mouth, his final spoken words being, “Would that I were so easily silenced.” In the battle against state approved censorship, a defiled Sade goes so far as to write across the walls of his cell in his own faeces, finally making his work the filth it had been decried as by polite society. By this point in time, sex has long stopped being sexy, and satisfaction is nowhere to be had. This is erotica as politics to the basest of degrees. What better way to make your disdain known than to fling your own shit?
On top of being unsexy, the sex of Quills is often deeply unromantic. Nobody seems to be doing the deed here based on mutual love or respect. The doctor’s unwilling wife Simone (Amelia Warner), plucked from a convent with the explicit intention of being his submissive partner, finds her escape through Sade’s works. Before seeking out one of his infamous tales in a local bookshop, hiding it in the hardcover of the more publicly acceptable book of ladies’ poetry, Simone knew nothing of the world beyond God and her wifely duties. Relations with the doctor were more akin to marital rape, tolerated nightly as a statue of the Virgin Mary judged silently from the windowsill.
Through a copy of Justine, one of Sade’s earlier works that’s pretty light on obscenities compared to his most infamous writings, Simone discovers a penchant for manipulation through sex. That newly found passion sees her seduce her decorator into helping her flee the gilded prison her husband has hired him to build for her. For the doctor, she leaves behind a final indignity, by ensuring she and her new lover fuck throughout his obscenely costly home, “on the linens for which he so dearly paid… And finally, as a crowning gesture, [we’ll] leave puddles of love on the Peruvian marble.”
In Quills, Wright’s take on Sade is kinder to women than the man himself. In reality, the Marquis de Sade was a rapist who, as claimed by historical texts, had an affair with the real Madeleine LeClerc in the asylum for many years. At the time this began, she was only 14. In the context of Quills, his writings, as penned by Wright, frame female sexuality in part as a gendered superpower capable of leaving men bereft and impotent. Sex is not something you do with the people you love—why would you screw them over like that?
The closest we get to mutual passion is a dream sequence between the Abbé and Madeleine, where he approaches her nude body on an altar, and lays kisses across her breasts until she awakens, presumably from death. The pair join together in bliss for a few moments before the Abbé becomes distracted by the judgemental gaze of the cross, then he wakes up in shock. By the film’s end, his hard work and optimism have been crushed and he too has been institutionalised, taking up the quill in Sade’s place and finishing his work. He was never to be so easily silenced.
Park Chan-wook’s 2016 drama The Handmaiden has a similar take on erotica to Quills: cheap thrills where artistic merit is void and good sex optional. Where Quills differs is in its eroticising of the source. We never see the authors of the countless stories Lady Hideko is forced to read for the entertainment of nameless men, but we are aware of the work’s intended audience and what it will ultimately be used for. This is made all the more stark by the lack of men actually engaging in sex throughout the film. Lady Hideko’s own uncle, the owner of this immense erotica collection, doesn’t seem to know how sex actually works outside of the clinical descriptions. Titillation intended for men becomes instruction for the film’s leading women.
For Quills, women seek to benefit the most from Sade’s work. And it is men who will spoil their fun by desperately clinging to power and forcing women into destructive submission. There’s an evident unease for the female viewer in watching Wright’s willingness to turn a truly nasty historical figure with a history of rape and abuse into a camp mouthpiece for the anti-censorship movement; the misogynist as catalyst for female liberation. Through his work, Simone finds power while Madeleine is given entertainment. Wright does blur these lines accordingly, ensuring the audience that this charming man is still to be pitied and questioned. It’s hard not to feel sorry for a man left sobbing and naked in a cell as the news of Madeleine’s death is broken to him, but the panic and destruction his work has left the world around him in speaks louder than he ever can.
By the end of Quills, Sade has been personally silenced, but his work lives on. Now, it is a hot commodity, printed en masse by his former fellow inmates and sold at a profit by the Doctor, as endorsed by Napoleon himself. Their efforts at censorship were less about shutting down transgression and more about controlling it. Even the Abbé, committed to the prison he once ran, has been reduced to scrawling his own torrid tales, as narrated by Sade himself in his own mind. The hypocrisy is staggering, but that hardly seems to matter in the context of a story where actions are immaterial compared to words. Even bad writers can inspire immense deeds. Fortunately, Doug Wright is a better writer than the Marquis de Sade.