We must not decontextualize the Marquis de Sade. He was a product of his epoch. Born in 1740, died in 1814, he was an aristocrat who survived the French Revolution. Sade was in the Bastille when it was stormed. Indeed, he spent 27 years of his life in prison, where he wrote most of his works. He survived the guillotine because his novels surfaced, not he.
Phillip Kaufman’s brilliant film, Quills, exquisitely evokes Sade’s France in its opening sequence of an aristocrat’s beheading. As the Marquis (played to lecherous perfection by Geoffrey Rush) watches the execution from a prison cell, we can imagine his thoughts: What are we to make of a state which says, “Thou shalt not kill,” and then does so itself? What are we to do with laws that are merely empty rhetoric? Sade was imprisoned at a time when the state was more criminal than his fellow inmates.
But we also must not romanticize Sade. He ended up in prison, after all, because his castle was the site of tortures and poisonings. And his works, though they ought to be distinguished from his sordid biography, are problematic themselves. “Justine” depicts a virtuous orphan girl subjected to horrible humiliations, leading her to believe that virtue is not its own reward. “Juliette” follows Justine’s sister, whose libertine preferences make her the ideal pupil for a treacherous teacher. “The 120 Days of Sodom” enumerates tortures, a veritable encyclopedia of evil. The literary critic Roger Shattuck says that the 20th century’s rehabilitation of Sade is the most dangerous thing that can be done.
Kaufman’s film grapples with these very concerns, historicizing them during Sade’s lifetime. Geoffrey Rush is the Marquis and Joaquin Phoenix is the Abbe de Coulmier, a man of God and the head of Charenton, the mental asylum where Sade is spending his last years. Coulmier befriends, becalms and eventually becomes the Marquis. Kate Winslet is Madeleine, a virginal laundress who smuggles Sade’s work out of Charenton to be published. And Michael Caine is Dr. Royer-Collard, a true product of the Enlightenment: all order, reason and patience. He is as sadistic as they come. The acting is consistently superb, with especially evocative and challenging performances by Phoenix and Rush. Their intensities play perfectly off each other. Power relations shift as the two men realize their shared desire for flesh and quill.
The narrative of Quills is not the Marquis de Sade’s, but it is Sadean. Everything begins with the text. Sade’s catharsis, as explored in Quills, is not through writing itself, but through having that writing read. The Sadean narrative must have readers because the author’s catharsis occurs through his education of others. His is a pedagogical purgative.
The brilliance of Doug Wright’s script (he wrote the play and film) is that Quills is a story that writes itself. Sade’s novels themselves all have imbedded narratives, and this incestuous language serves to eliminate the difference between the inside and outside of the text. As we read a work of Sade’s, we become like the readers within the work. As the characters of Quills taunt each other with passages from Sade’s latest manuscript, we too are left yearning for more salacious utterances.
At the end of the film, we are left with human sterility. Madeleine is a virgin, Sade is isolated, Coulmier has a vow of chastity. None of them can reproduce. The only thing that can continue on are words themselves. That text is made beautifully organic in the film when Sade’s quills and ink are taken from him: he progresses from food to blood to feces as surrogate inks. The text indeed lives.
One of the Marquis de Sade’s most brilliant and criticized literary tactics is to leave things unsaid. He will tell the reader that what happens next in the narrative is so awful, he cannot even write it. This forces the imagination of the reader to wander to depths more terrible than anything Sade himself could have written. Thus the reader is made active. The viewer is similarly implicated in Quills. Who among us would not crave for a closer shot of Kate Winslet’s naked breasts and yet half cover our eyes during the most bloody scenes? We too want to control the flow of images, increasing the film’s titillation at times.
Make no mistake — Quills is not a purely Sadean work. The victims of violence are given a voice and are made very human, a feature absent from Sade’s writings. And Quills is not Salo, Pasolini’s great adaptation of “120 Days of Sodom” set in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. Indeed, though it has formal and thematic structures, which are Sadean, the most intelligent aspect of the film is that it preserves the critical ambiguity that stays with Sade to this day. Critics still cannot decide if Sade extols a sort of fascism or if he offers a critique of it. Freedom for the sadist necessarily obliterates the freedom of the victim. Liberty made absolute must also be made absent.
Similarly, Quills offers a critique of censorship, making sympathetic characters of the victims of oppressive state limitations on artistic expression. But at the same time, the film lends credence to the view that art can create a social danger by corrupting its consumers. A violent inmate at Charenton is so inflamed by Sade’s words that he acts out the written horrors to gruesome effect.
It is not obvious which side Kaufman takes in the debate on censorship, fascism and freedom. The film leaves us with the same taste as a work of Sade’s: we sense that perversion has the right to exist. Perhaps even the duty. Vice allows us to know virtue, but at quite a cost.