The Waterloo Association: Members Area

Get Involved:

Facebook Twitter Email
The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Miscellaneous

Quills, the Movie

Kaufman, Philip, dir. Quills Perf. Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix , Kate Winslet and Michael Caine. Written by Doug Wright (from his play). Fox Searchlight, 2000.

This is not really a review of the film "Quills," but rather a look at the historical accuracy or lack thereof of the movie. The film has been justifiably praised for its fine writing, direction and acting. But just how "true" is it? BE WARNED, if you haven't seen the film there is information in the article that could potentially spoil the film for you. There are also a few unpleasant details of the life of the notorious Marquis de Sade contained in the descriptions below.

Spoilers Alert

"Quills" purports to be the story of the Marquis de Sade's final years as an inmate in the asylum at Charenton under "administrative arrest." Sade's stay at Charenton has already be immortalized in the Peter Weiss play (that was later made into a movie) "Marat/Sade." The main characters are Sade; the Abbe Coulmier, the director of the asylum; Madeleine, a laundress in the asylum who helps Sade smuggle his writings to his publishers; and, Dr. Royer-Collard, the chief physician sent by Napoleon to silence Sade. All of these characters are in fact historical persons who were involved in Sade's final years of imprisonment, though, as we shall see, quite differently in some cases than as portrayed in the film.

Sade, the so-called "Divine Marquis," played by Geoffrey Rush (who won an Oscar for his role in "Shine") was imprisoned during Napoleon's regime under a kind of lettre de cachet in part because of his alleged authorship of a pornographic novel attacking Napoleon's wife Josephine entitled Zolo (which he probably didn't write) and due to a campaign in the press attacking him for his libertinage and pornographic writings in general, including the novel Justine. Sade had already spent much of his life in prison for various offenses, having been incarcerated under the ancien regime and the Revolution, before being held in custody under Napoleon (nor was he released after the Restoration). Sade was transferred to Charenton due to the urgings of Sade's ex-wife and children, the family paying some 8,000 francs for his upkeep. Sade's comfortable existence in the insane asylum at Charenton, outside Paris, was preferable to incarceration in a state prison.

Sade's room at Charenton included an antechamber fitted out as a study, a library of more than 250 volumes whose windows had pleasant views over the hospital grounds to the Marne, and living quarters with a fireplace. Sade was free to walk about the grounds and was free to be visit or be visited. Sade entertained in his rooms several times a week, often entertaining some of Paris' prettiest actresses. He was also frequently visited by a barber. On one occasion Sade was even allowed to leave the grounds to attend mass St.-Maurice on Easter Sunday 1805. Even Sade's mistress, whom he designated his "illegitimate daughter," was allowed lived with him at Charenton after 1804, had an adjoining room. He also apparently had a valet to look after his needs. On the other hand, however, the police did keep Sade under surveillance, confiscating not only the occasional pornographic writings (which were later burned at the direct order and in the presence of Sade's son) but also various implements of a sexual nature. During one raid, police found "an enormous wax instrument which showed traces of its ignoble [self] introduction."

A description of Sade during his time at Charenton is quite unlike the appearance of Geoffrey Rush in the film, although Sade did affect wigs of pre-Revolutionary styles. Sade was described as "very big, very fat, very cold, very heavy, a large mass, a vulgar, short man whose head seemed a shameful ruin." Needless to say, Sade never had his tongue cut out as in the film, though that image presents a good allegory for the supposed censorship of Sade's writing.

The real Abb Coulmier, played by the young, upcoming actor Joaquin Phoenix (he played the Roman emperor Commodus in the film Gladiator), was, unlike the portrayal in the movie, already sixty-one years of age -two years younger than Sade-when Sade arrived at Charenton. Franois Simonet de Coulmier was a defrocked priest and moderate Jacobin member of the Constituent Assembly. Unlike the good-looking young actor who portrays him, Coulmier in real life was described as a "sort of gnome with gnarled legs." Coulmier was apparently 4 feet tall (just about the height the film makes the 5' 6" Napoleon appear), hunchbacked, with twisted legs, bulging eyes and an oversized head - not quite the handsome young abb of the film. Coulmier and Sade "shared a common taste for women and libertinage, [and] a pronounced penchant for pleasures of all kinds" Like Sade, Coulmier was a dandy (in spite of his looks), with refined ancien regime manners (in spite of his revolutionary leanings) and was a bit of a snob. Coulmier, who had gone into hiding during the height of the Terror, rallied early to Napoleon's cause and received the coveted Legion of Honor from Napoleon.

Coulmier's semi-enlightened administration of Charenton was of more concern to France's medical establishment, who opposed Coulmier because he wasn't a medical doctor, than of Napoleon's government. It was Coulmier who advocated the use of the so-called "terror baths", which were in use prior to Dr. Royer-Collard's arrival. Coulmier on taking over the asylum at Charenton retained many of the treatment practices which we would see as brutal, including locking the worst cases in a wicker cage, the use of straight-jackets and the "terror baths" -all blamed on Royer-Collard in the film. He also employed treatments that at the time were considered quite "enlightened," including diets, bleeding, and purges. After Napoleon's fall and the restoration of the Bourbons, Coulmier was relieved of his duties, probably because of his revolutionary past and given a government bonus of 35,589 francs. He was replaced by M. de Maupas, who was married to Royer-Collard's eldest daughter. Royer-Collard was not a committed Bonapartist, instead he had pronounced Royalist leanings.

Dr. Antoine Royer-Collard, played by Michael Caine, became chief physician at Charenton after the previous physician, a famed gourmand, died from overeating (another indication that life at Charenton may not have been all that horrible). Royer-Collard, as a physician, had a professional rivalry with Coulmier. Upon his arrival Royer-Collard asked for the records of all the inmates -a not unreasonable request-- and Coulmier refused to forward them to the doctor. Royer personally disliked Sade and disliked Sade's special privileges, especially he presence of Sade's mistress and Sade's theater, both of which Royer-Collard though inappropriate for a mental institution. In fact, many of the inmates themselves disliked Coulmier's regime as much as they disliked Sade himself. One was to complain to the government, "what would you say about a hospital in which balls and concerts, and occasionally splendid dinners, are given to or three times a week, while unfortunate patients are treated like criminals, most of them bedded on straw like dogs, with a tiny bit of worn blanket for cover?" Compare that treatment with Sade's described above. The theater at Charenton continued to operate until a year after Sade's death. Although the majority of the minor roles were played by the asylum's inmates, the starring roles were usually played by professional actors from Paris. Numerous Charenton inmates complained of Sade's haughty, imperious, and brutal nature.

The last of the film's major characters, Madeleine, played by Titanic's Kate Winslet, was also a real person. Magdeleine Leclerc, whose mother, acting as Sade's procuress was a mere twelve years old in 1808 and was only eighteen when Sade died; a fact that would have made the film Sade look somewhat less romantic to contemporary viewers. Magdeleine was paid 3 francs for each liaison with Sade, though the sixty-year-old Sade, who had a pronounced persecution complex (perhaps with good reason), felt the girl was taking advantage of him. At times he thought her "one of those spies, placed near condemned men, who attempt to glean their secrets" and complained of "her coldness, her insouciance in pleasure and in conversations." He also thought that there had been "more forthrightness and honesty in her when she was a child." Jealous of his young partner, Sade made the teenager promise to attend no dances, have no visitors and go on no dates.

Sade kept detailed, though coded, records of his interactions with the young girl, recording that he first sodomized Magdeleine when she was about fifteen years old (he was reportedly also sodomizing a young boy from the asylum at about the same time). By 1814 Sade had noted in his journal that he had sodomized the girl more than 64 times, along with other sexual encounters with her. All during this time Sade's mistress continued to live with him at Charenton. By the way, Magdeleine was not murdered by the inmates of the asylum -a scene seemingly borrowed from the end of Weiss' "Marat/Sade".

It was the government that ordered Sade to be deprived of the materials for producing additional writings after 1810 (Sade had been deprived of writing material while imprisoned in the Bastille during the ancien regime). Sade however continued to write, though he had some trouble obtaining pens, ink and paper. He continued though to keep a journal (a volume of which was seized in 1810 and another in 1814) and in 1813 he submitted a play to the Comedie-Franaise. In the previous year Sade had written a cantata in honor of a visit by Cardinal Maury, Archbishop of Paris, as well as a novel; so the attempts to curtail Sade's writing was not pursued very vigorously.

Napoleon is played for laughs in his brief appearance in the film, sitting like a naughty boy on his oversized throne and conferring with his Marshals and court portrayed as ancient ne'er-do-wells. Francine du Plessix Gray has written the following on Napoleon and Sade "To what degree was the Emperor of the French involved in the decisions concerning Sade? By 1809, Napoleon was confronted with far more weighty matters than the repression of aging libertines.On two occasions, in 1811 and 1812, he would sign with his own hand the ministerial decrees that ordered Sade to remain in detention[and] stated that he had "leafed through the most abominable book [probably, Sade's Justine] that a depraved imagination ever conceived: a novel that even at the time of the Convention had so revolted public morals that [Sade] had been jailed. One of Sade's sons, an army officer, had served with Napoleon during the 1795 Vendmiaire uprising [and was later murdered by guerrillas in Italy] and a number of Sade's plays included couplets in praise of the Imperial family (perhaps in an attempt to curry favor). Reviewed by Tom Holmberg. 1/01.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg, February 2001