Quills begins in Paris during the Reign of Terror, with the incarcerated Marquis de Sade penning a story about the libidinous Mademoiselle Renard, a ravishing young aristocrat who meets the preeminent sadist in her executioner.
Several years later, the Marquis is confined to the asylum for the insane at Charenton, overseen by the enlightened Abbé du Coulmier. The Marquis has been publishing his work through laundress Madeleine "Maddy" LeClerc, who smuggles manuscripts through an anonymous horseman to a publisher. The Marquis' latest work, Justine, is published on the black market to great success. Emperor Napoléon I Bonaparte orders all copies of the book to be torched and the author shot, but his advisor, Delbené, tempers this contentious idea with one of his own: send alienist Dr. Royer-Collard to assess Charenton and silence the Marquis. Meanwhile, the Abbé teaches Madeleine to read and write and resists his growing attraction to her. Madeleine reads the Marquis de Sade's stories to her fellow workers. Whilst Madeleine is fascinated by the Marquis de Sade she remains reluctant to give into his advances. The Abbé and Marquis converse on the Marquis' inappropriate advances on young women.
Dr. Royer-Collard arrives, informing the Abbé that the Marquis' "therapeutic writings" have been distributed for public consumption. He presents the Abbé with the ultimatum of silencing the Marquis or Charenton will be shut down by order of the Emperor. The Abbé rejects Royer-Collard's offers of several aggressive 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 orphan Simone. They are given a run-down chateau by the Emperor, with a handsome young architect, Prouix, 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, which Dr Royer-Collard and his young wife attend. The audacious play, a shockingly straightforward parallel of the good doctor's own misogynist domination of his virginal bride, is titled "The Crimes of Love". The performance is interrupted when the inmate Bouchon molests Madeleine off-stage, prompting her to hit him in the face with an iron. The Abbé is seen publicly comforting Madeleine. Royer-Collard shuts down the public theater and demands that the Abbé do more to control the Marquis, or he will inform the ministry that the inmates are running the asylum. Infuriated, the Abbé confiscates the Marquis' quills and ink. The Marquis's wife visits him and he takes out his frustration at not being able to write on her; she retaliates by asking a surprised Dr Royer-Collard that the Marquis be entombed forever. They discuss that the ill-gotten gains from the Marquis's books could be used to effect his salvation, in other words, provide forms of restraint. The lack of writing implements results in more subversive behaviour from the Marquis, 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. Charlotte, one of the maids, reveals that Madeleine has been helping the Marquis. Madeleine is whipped on the order of Dr. Royer-Collard until the Abbé stops him by offering himself instead. The Abbé decides that Madeleine must be sent away. That night she visits his chamber to beg him to reconsider sending her away and confesses her love for him in the process, prompting him to kiss her passionately. They abruptly break away at the realization of what they are doing. Madeleine runs off and Charlotte catches the Abbé calling after her.
Meanwhile, Royer-Collard violently raped Simone on their wedding night, and continues to keep her as a virtual prisoner. She purchases a copy of Justine, seduces Prioux, and the young lovers run off to England together. She leaves behind a letter explaining her actions and her copy of Justine. Upon finding this, Royer-Collard seizes on the Marquis as the source of his troubles and embarks upon a quest for revenge, by having him tortured.
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 attacks Madeleine. Royer-Collard hears Madeleine's screams but chooses to ignore them and she is killed by Bouchon. The asylum is set afire by the pyromaniac Dauphin and the inmates break out of their cells.
Madeleine's body is found by her blind mother and the Abbé in the laundry vat. The Abbé is devastated by Madeleine's death 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 has the Marquis' tongue cut out as punishment for his involvement, but is riddled with remorse and physically punishes himself. The Abbé then has a dream in which Madeleine comes alive and they have sex, but ultimately it ends with him holding her corpse. The Marquis' health declines severely, but he remains perverse as ever, decorating his dungeon with a story, using faeces as ink. As the Marquis lies dying, the Abbé reads him the last rites and offers him a crucifix to kiss. The Marquis defiantly swallows the crucifix and chokes to death on it.
A year later, the new Abbé arrives at Charenton and is given the grand tour by Royer-Collard. During the tour they meet the maid Charlotte and through the exchange between herself and Royer-Collard it is apparent that there is a connection. The asylum has been converted into a print shop, 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 new Abbé, and tries to strangle Royer-Collard when he ventures to close the peephole. The Abbé is herded off by Royer-Collard before he can hear anymore from his predecessor. 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.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 Emperor Napoléon I Bonaparte 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, the feisty laundress and romantic interest for both the Abbé and the Marquis. 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 well-loved administrator at Charenton asylum. A profoundly religious man, he treats his wards with kindness and allows them to express themselves artistically. He is in love with Maddy, though he does not admit it to her or himself. Before settling on Joaquin Phoenix, casting directors considered Jude Law, Guy Pearce, and Billy Crudup for the role.
Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard, the traditionalist foil for the Abbé who was sent by Emperor Napoléon to silence the Marquis, 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, 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, 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, Royer-Collard's child bride who elopes with architect Prioux.
Stephen Moyer as Prioux, a promising architect sent by Emperor Napoléon to renovate the Royer-Collard chateau, Prioux falls in love with Simone and runs away with her.
Jane Menelaus (Rush's real-life spouse) as Renée Pelagie, the Marquis de Sade's long-suffering wife.
Ron Cook as Napoléon I 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 Emperor Napoléon, the first being in the Sharpe series in 1994.
Patrick Malahide as Delbené, Napoléon's most trusted advisor; is responsible for sending Dr. Royer-Collard to Charenton.
Elizabeth Berrington as Charlotte, a meddlesome chambermaid who 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, 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.
Edward Tudor-Pole as Franval, an obsessive-compulsive.
The interior set of the Charenton (asylum) in Quills was built at Pinewood Studios, where most of the filming took place. Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, and London stood in for the exterior shots of early 19th 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, 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.
The Quills soundtrack was released by RCA Victor on 21 November 2000 featuring the music of Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck (Shakespeare in Love). Featuring experimental instrumentation 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:
By the light of the moon,
My friend Pierrot,
Lend me your quill,
To write a word.
My candle is dead,
I have no more fire.
Open your door for me
For the love of God.
By the light of the moon,
"I don't have any pens,
I am in my bed
Go to the neighbor's,
I think she's there
Because in her kitchen
Someone is lighting the fire"
By the light of the moon
Knock's on the brunette's door.
She suddenly responds:
- Who's knocking like that?
He then replies:
- Open your door
For the God of Love!
By the light of the moonTrack listing
One could barely see
The pen was looked for,
The light was looked for.
With all that looking
I don't know what was found,
But I do know that the door
Shut itself on them.
- "The Marquis and the Scaffold" – 3:08
- "The Abbe and Madeleine" – 2:19
- "The Convent" – 2:22
- "Plans for a Burial" – 1:18
- "Dream of Madeleine" – 4:42
- "Royer-Collard and Bouchon" – 4:15
- "Aphrodisiac" – 2:59
- "The Last Story" – 7:35
- "The Marquis' Cell at Charenton" – 4:38
- "The End: A New Manuscript" – 7:32
- "The Printing Press" – 2:22
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures in 2000, Quills premiered in the United States at the Telluride Film Festival on 2 September 2000. It was given a limited release on 22 November 2000, with a wider release following on 15 December 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.
Quills was released on NTSC VHS and Region 1 DVD on 8 May 2001, with PAL VHS and Region 2 DVD to follow on 29 October 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."
Reviews were generally positive, with a 75% "fresh" rating at the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 70/100 at Metacritic.
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.
In December 2000, film critic Roger Ebert wrote an article on Quills in which he rated it 3.5 stars out of 4 and stated, "The message of "Quills" is perhaps that we are all expressions of our natures, and to live most successfully we must understand that."
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." 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 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.
Neil Schaeffer, whose The Marquis de Sade: A Life was 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 6 May 1813, years before the real Dr. Royer-Collard 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 (who 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."
However, copyright issues could be considered to be a partial reason to at least one aspect of the historical inaccuracies in Quills. According to Kaufman, Doug Wright did not have the rights to the original translations and therefore had to create and write the passages of de Sade's work that are included in the original play and the film. He applied the vocabulary used in the translations to the passages to imitate de Sade's style but the archaic language comes across as funny to a modern viewer whereas in the 1700s, as stated by Kaufman, these words were "incendiary".