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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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 "Maddy" 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.

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 given 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 wine on bedsheets and 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. In a later scene, the Abbe commits necrophilia with the corpse of Madeline in a dream. 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.


Filming began in England on August 5, 1999, with Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, and London standing in for early nineteenth century France. Oscar-winning production designer Martin Childs (Shakespeare in Love) imagined the primary location of Charenton as an airy, though circuitous place, darkening as Royer-Collard takes over operations. The screenplay specifies the way the inmates' rooms link together, which plays a key role in the relay of the Marquis' climactic story to Madeleine. Screenwriter/playwright Doug Wright was a constant presence on set, assisting the actors and producers in interpreting the script and bringing his vision to life. Oscar-nominated costume designer Jacqueline West created the intricate period costumes, using each character as inspiration. West previously worked with director Philip Kaufman on his crime drama Rising Sun. For Joaquin Phoenix's Abbé, costumers designed special “pleather” clogs to accommodate the actor's veganism. In one scene, Geoffrey Rush's Marquis de Sade wears a suit decorated in bloody script, which West described as “challenging” to make. It features actual writings of de Sade and costumers planned exactly where each sentence should go on the fabric. Before production began, West gave Winslet a copy of French painter Léopold Boilly's “Woman Ironing” to give her a feel for the character, which Winslet said greatly influenced her performance. Casting directors Donna Isaacson and Priscilla John recruited a number of actors from a disabled actor's company to play the parts of many of the inmates at Charenton.


  • Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade: The flamboyantly outrageous Marquis refuses to conform to the moral standards of the day, making an enemy of Napoleon with his scandalous pornography and political commentary. Director Philip Kaufman encouraged Rush to portray the Marquis as something of a dissolute rock star holed up in the Ritz Carlton. Rush used Francine du Plessix Gray's 1998 biography At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life as a reference and had previously acted in a production of Marat/Sade.
  • Kate Winslet as Madeleine “Maddy” LeClerc: Feisty laundress Madeleine is the romantic interest for both the Abbé and the Marquis. In love with the Abbé, who refuses to reciprocate, she is fascinated by the Marquis and his intelligence and experience. Screenwriter Doug Wright called Winslet the “patron saint” of the movie for being the first big name to back it, expressing interest as early as April 1999.
  • Joaquin Phoenix as the Abbé du Coulmier: The Abbé du Coulmier is the well-loved administrator at Charenton asylum. A profoundly religious man, he treats his wards with kindness and allows them to express themselves artistically. Before settling on Joaquin Phoenix, casting directors considered Jude Law, Guy Pearce, and Billy Crudup for the role.
  • Michael Caine as Doctor Royer-Collard: Sent by Napoleon to silence the Marquis, Royer-Collard is the traditionalist foil for the Abbé, though he proves as sadistic as the Marquis himself. Kaufman drew comparisons between Royer-Collard and Kenneth Starr, particularly the publication of de Sade's works at the Charenton Printing Press and the release of Starr's report online.
  • Billie Whitelaw as Madame LeClerc: Madame LeClerc is Madeleine's blind mother, a long-time employee of the asylum, whose blindness resulted from long-time exposure to the lye of the laundry vats.
  • Stephen Marcus as Bouchon: Bouchon is the inmate who attempts to rape Madeleine backstage during “The Crimes of Love” and ultimately kills her during the climax of the film.
  • Amelia Warner as Simone: Simone is Dr. Royer-Collard's child bride who elopes with architect Prioux.
  • Stephen Moyer as Prioux: A promising architect sent by Napoleon to renovate the Royer-Collard chateau, Prioux falls in love with Simone and runs away with her.
  • Jane Menelaus as Renee Pelagie: Menelaus, Geoffrey Rush's real-life spouse, is Renee Pelagie, the Marquis de Sade's long-suffering wife.
  • Ron Cook as Napoleon Bonaparte: The Emperor of the French, who ordered the anonymous author of Justine (the Marquis) arrested in 1801. This was Cook's second appearance as Napoleon, the first being in the Sharpe series in 1994.
  • Patrick Malahide as Delbené: Napoleon's most trusted advisor, Delbené is responsible for sending Dr. Royer-Collard to Charenton.
  • Elizabeth Berrington as Charlotte: A meddlesome chambermaid, Charlotte betrays Madeleine to Royer-Collard and eventually becomes his lover and assistant at the Charenton Printing Press.
  • Tony Pritchard as Valcour: Charenton's prefect, Valcour performs much of the physical work necessary at the asylum.
  • Michael Jenn as Cleante: Cleante is a madman who thinks he is a bird. He stars in “The Crimes of Love” in the Royer-Collard-inspired role of The Libertine and helps pass the Marquis' story to Madeleine later in the film.


Critical reception

The Quills soundtrack was released by RCA Victor on November 21, 2000 featuring the music of Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck (Shakespeare in Love). Featuring experimental instrumentation by The Quills Specialist Band on such instruments as the serpent, shawm, and bucket, most reviewers were intrigued by the unconventional and thematic score. Cinemusic.net reviewer Ryan Keaveney called the album a “macabre masterpiece,” with an “addicting and mesmerizing” sound. Urban Cinephile contributor Brad Green described the album as a “hedonistic pleasure” that “captures the spirit of an incorrigible, perverse genius.” Soundtrack.net's Glenn McClanan disliked the “lack of unifying unified themes and motifs” that may have served each individual scene, but made the film feel “incoherent.”

Au Clair de la Lune

Though not included on the soundtrack, the opening notes of "Au Clair de la Lune," a traditional French children's song, recur throughout the film, usually hummed by the Marquis. The song is originally sung by John Hamway during the opening scene of a beheading which was filmed in Oxford. The English translation provides some illumination as to its selection as a theme for the Marquis:

At thy door I'm knocking by the pale moonlight
Lend a pen I pray thee, I've a word to write
Guttered is my candle, burns my fire no more
For the love of heaven, open now the door

Pierrot cried in answer by the pale moonlight
"In my bed I'm lying, late and chill the night
Yonder at my neighbor's, someone is astir
Fire is freshly kindled - get a light from her."

To the neighbor's house then by the pale moonlight
Goes our gentle Lubin to beg a pen to write
"Who knocks there so softly?" Calls a voice above
"Open wide your door now, 'tis the god of love"

Seek they pen and candle in the pale moonlight
They can see so little, dark is now the night
What they find in seeking, that is not revealed
All behind her door is carefully concealed|Anonymous

Track listing

  1. "The Marquis and the Scaffold" – 3:08
  2. "The Abbe and Madeleine" – 2:19
  3. "The Convent" – 2:22
  4. "Plans for a Burial" – 1:18
  5. "Dream of Madeleine” – 4:42
  6. "Royer-Collard and Bouchon" – 4:15
  7. "Aphrodisiac" – 2:59
  8. "The Last Story" – 7:35
  9. "The Marquis' Cell at Charenton" – 4:38
  10. "The End: A New Manuscript" – 7:32
  11. "The Printing Press" – 2:22


Box office performance

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures in 2000, Quills premiered in the United States at the Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2000. It was given a limited release on November 22, 2000, with a wider release following on December 15, 2000. The film earned $249,383 its opening weekend in nine theaters, totaling $7,065,332 domestically and $10,923,895 internationally, for a total of $17,989,227.

DVD and other releases

Quills was released on NTSC VHS and Region 1 DVD on May 8, 2001, with PAL VHS and Region 2 DVD to follow on October 29, 2001. The DVD contains a feature-long commentary track by screenwriter/playwright Doug Wright and three featurettes: “Marquis on Marquee,” “Creating Charenton,” and “Dressing the Part.” Also included are the theatrical trailer, a television spot, a photo gallery, a music promotional spot, and a feature called “Fact & Film: Historical and Production Information.”


Critical reception

Reviews were generally positive, with extravagant praise heaped on Rush. Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times complimented the “euphoric stylishness” of Kaufman's direction and Geoffrey Rush's “gleeful...flamboyant” performance. Peter Travers for Rolling Stone wrote about the “exceptional” actors, particularly Geoffrey Rush's “scandalously good” performance as the Marquis, populating a film that is “literate, erotic, and spoiling to be heard.” Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com enthused over the “delectable and ultimately terrifying fantasy” of Quills, with Rush as “sun king,” enriched by a “luminous” supporting cast.

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.

Historical inaccuracy

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 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 de 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."

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