Quills: The Struggle of the Writer to Create in a Mad World

I wanted to see Quills (2000) primarily because I saw that it was a fictionalized telling of the life of Marquis de Sade and I was curious to see what it had to say about sexual sadism. What the movie is about however, is not quite sex per se. It’s about artistic creation and the great lengths de Sade and many artists must go through to bring their art into the world. This was a pleasant surprise. I was not expecting this bigger message and it turned out to be so much more meaningful. The times seemed extraordinarily grim and depressing. What I took away from this movie was how writing for the writer and reading for the reader, makes life bearable. This is the beauty of art. As spoken by Madeleine:

Reading’s my salvation. It’s a hard day’s wages, slaving away for madmen. What I’ve seen in life, it takes a lot to hold my interest. I put myself in his stories. I play the parts. Each strumpet, each murderess. If I wasn’t such a bad woman on the page, I’ll hazard I couldn’t be such a good woman in life.

And life itself can be a prison of convention and temporal circumstance. But it is stories, their creation and their consumption that can give us freedom, escape, and the empowerment to liberate ourselves. This is seen in the character of Simone who, after reading Justine, runs away to live a life of love and sexual freedom. She is the only one with a hopeful and promising ending. The single environment of the movie, the insane asylum, creates a palpable feeling of confinement. Prisons of any kind, whether literal or figurative, are truly awful, despairing places. In them you are robbed of personal choice and freedom. While de Sade is imprisoned because of his sexual deviance and defiance of society’s norms, each character is in a prison of their own. Abbe is held captive by his religious vows and can never truly experience emotional or physical love with Madeleine. Madeleine is restricted by her station in life and her duties to her work. We see this visually in one of the opening scenes of the movie where she stands behind the tall iron gate of the asylum as she smuggles out de Sade’s manuscripts to his publisher. She flirts with the messenger but must return to a life behind bars.

The artist has much to struggle against both within and without. Quills tackles the latter, dealing with oppressive outside forces. Marquis de Sade never doubts for one second the creation of his art. He never questions the merit of his work or whether he is good at it. His writing is what gives him life and reason to live, what cures his loneliness, and what helps him fulfill his fantasies. While those around him are conflicted, de Sade is certain in his pursuit to create and will not be stopped. Even writing with blood and poop. He goes to his death giving the proverbial middle finger, believing in what he is doing to the very end.

Quills is born from a deep understanding of the creative process and the power of words. There is one scene where everything has been taken away from de Sade and he is literally left naked in an empty room to stop him from writing. But the stripping of possessions isn’t what renders his pathos. It is when Abbe says to him: “Don’t flatter yourself, Marquis. You’re not the antichrist. You’re nothing but a malcontent who knows how to spell.” This is the power of words to strip a person bare. And the power of words to render ugly truths. While de Sade was confined to a madhouse, it was the outside world that was truly mad and presented the greatest hypocrisy and contradiction. While Dr. Royer-Collard condemned de Sade’s work when he was alive, after de Sade’s death, he profits from it. Royer-Collard prints de Sade’s books and sells them to finance his own work at the asylum which is to torture the deviance out of patients that books like de Sade’s is believed to incite. The cycle reveals the hypocrisy itself.

In the end Quills makes one last point about art and the society that receives it. It is changing times and shifting opportunities that may determine art’s place in society, not the nature of art itself. The artist is at the mercy of a fickle people and a few opportunists in the position of authority. Art itself is all a matter of perception and how you look at it. And perception can be deceptive. Consider the opening scene. We think we are seeing a woman who is in the throes of passion as she has her bodice ripped open. Till we pull back a little further on the image to see that it was not the arms of a lover that ripped her clothes, but the arms of an executioner, as she is swiftly beheaded at the guillotine. The deception of perception is what the writer, Doug Wright, utilizes to play with the audience. Luring them into a weakened state of titillation and then shocking them with a scene of death. What a brilliant and masterful maneuver.

This was a great movie, I really liked it. The dialogue, demanding attentiveness and intelligence, was laced with meaning throughout. Not a second of the movie was wasted that didn’t work towards echoing the refrain with nuance and subtlety. When de Sade has his quills and ink taken from him, he turns to write with grease, bone, and wine, penning his story on the clothes he wears. In effect he becomes his art. Only then can one see what remains a timeless truth for the writer: how precious pen and paper.


Originally published at www.kimbercastle.com on July 30, 2018.