By Jamie May
The film Quills by director Philip Kaufman is set in the Charenton asylum in France in the late 1700s or early 1800s. The story revolves around the asylum's most infamous patient, Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade. The Marquis de Sade was a French writer in this time period who wrote graphically explicit and morbid sexually related stories. He was put in various prisons and asylums throughout his adult life because of his mad and often violent behavior. Although not all of the climactic events in the film are exactly factual, the movie does a wonderful job of personifying the Marquis de Sade and the other historical characters. It also gives a valid portrayal of a French asylum of the time and some of the torture practices performed there.
When one reads about the Marquis de Sade in books, it is hard to imagine what he was like in person. Geoffrey Rush is wonderful in his portrayal of de Sade. He has just the right combination of polish and perversity needed to convey a man like de Sade. Rush is able to disgust and intrigue the viewer at the same time, much as de Sade entertained and revolted his audiences. The character of the Marquis is accurately portrayed in many ways throughout the movie. First, de Sade is given many privileges that the other prisoners are denied. This actually happened at Charenton, as the director of the asylum, de Coulmier, had somewhat befriended de Sade. The film also shows de Sade as a director of the asylum's theater. In actuality, de Sade wrote, directed and even performed for the public in several of the plays performed at Charenton. Almost all of the other patients were excluded from the actual plays.
Secondly, many of the other characters in the movie were actual people living and interacting with the Marquis de Sade. In the first movie scene the viewer sees one of de Sade's publications being read aloud to the Emperor of France. The Emperor is short, stubborn, and infuriated by the writing of the Marquis. The king, of course, is supposed to be Napoleon. In real life, Napoleon repeatedly refused appeals of the Marquis requested by himself and his family. De Sade was finally ordered to remain at Charenton indefinitely by Napoleon in 1812.
Another character accurately portrayed in the movies was the Marquis' wife, Renee Pelagie (a role played by Jane Menelaus). His wife paid his room and board, attended his plays and visited him often during his stay at Charenton.
The character Madeline, played by Kate Winslet, however, is not portrayed quite so accurately. The character in the movie is an attractive laundress who plays an important role in getting de Sade's manuscripts out of the asylum. Although the character and de Sade have a heated and affectionate relationship, it is not sexual in nature throughout the movie. However, in actuality the person this character was based upon, Madeline Leclerc, was quite different. First, there is no proof she had anything to do with the publications of de Sade's work. Second, the nature of their relationship was indeed sexual in nature. This is known because de Sade compulsively noted down every encounter. In addition, Madeline's character is made to appear considerably older in the movie, when actually Madeline was only fifteen on the time of their affair.
Finally, it is important to note the presence of the torture devices in the movie, which were actually used on de Sade and other patients at Charenton. First, is the inclusion of the water torture in the movie. In the film, de Sade is strapped to an armchair type seat and repeatedly dunked backwards into a tub of water. At the time of de Sade's stay at Charenton two similar "water treatments", as they were called, were used. One was called the shower. In this method the patient was tied into an armchair with a vertical pipe approximately eight feet above the patient's head. The tap would then be turned on letting down a forceful jet of cold water onto the patient. This was believed to dislodge fixed ideas in a lunatic's head. Secondly, another water treatment used was the surprise bath. In this method the patient would be seized by the guards, undressed, blindfolded, and then pulled backwards by his hair. The patient was then seated on the edge of a huge pool. After this, the patient was dunked backwards by his hair and held for long periods under the water. Thirdly, the solitary confinement is used as torture on de Sade in a below ground-level pit. This method of solitary confinement was actually the most feared by the real patients who lived at Charenton. Other methods of torture that were faithfully included in the film included whipping, iron harnessing, mutilation, and the guillotine.
Overall, the film Quills is an accurate and entertaining portrayal of the Marquis de Sade's time spent at the Charenton asylum. Not only did it paint a vivid picture of what it must have been like for de Sade to live in the asylum, but also of what de Sade must have been like himself. It is not a film for everyone, not a film, indeed, for the many: the sex and violence, even in the context of the man and the times may offend or shock. However, even though some of the characters and incidences are embellished and fictionalized to enhance the plot, the core of the story is parallel to that of the history. Anyone who is interested in the Marquis de Sade, the eighteenth century, the French Revolution, or just looking for a chillingly exciting movie will find Quills fascinating,
For excellent social and biographical material on this witty, if perverted man, whose name coined the term 'sadism, ' Francine Du Plessix Gray's At Home With Marquis de Sade: A Life is well done. It concentrates on the interrelationships within De Sade's family and provides an excellent and compassionate social history.