Phillip Kaufman’s film Quills (2000) takes place in France during the Napoleonic Era in the early 19th century and focuses on the activities of the Marquis de Sade, a historical figure infamous for his practice of sexual sadism. Having been committed to the Charenton asylum for his “sexual deviancy,” the Marquis publishes salacious pornographic literature to escape the sexual repression forced upon him by the kindly priest, Abbe de Coulmier, and the sadistic asylum physician, Dr. Royer Collard, who both represent a morally oppressive society. Despite depicting sexually liberal women in his books, the Marquis’ intends his female characters to be used and dominated. When describing the acts of sadomasochism, the women are on the receiving end of perversity—merely serving as a device to actualize the Marquis’ devious fantasies. Through his work the Marquis de Sade reveals “the great eternal truths that bind all mankind,” or what the Abbe de Coulmier calls the “worst of man’s nature,” in order to expose the underlying perversity of society and the woman’s role as the object of that perversity.
The opening of the film featuring the beheading of the female aristocrat juxtaposed with shots of the Marquis scribbling words on parchment indicates a correlation between society’s cruelty toward women and de Sade’s fictional works. In a succession of images, the blood of the beheaded aristocratic woman becomes the ink of the Marquis’ pen, indicating his exploitation of female suffering as he turns the aristocrat’s execution into an erotic fiction. The way the Marquis verbally abuses his wife, whom he thinks must “hold [her] tongue, hoist her skirts” and “put her mouth to its one pleasurable use,” further elucidates his own misogyny but also suggests that women must be silent and submit themselves to humiliation. The erotic tales depicting the abuse of women are an exaggerated reflection of the ways in which the Marquis’ society abuses women, binding them and depriving them of their dignity and freedom. In a similar fashion the Marquis’ impromptu play, “Crimes of Love,” intentionally sheds light on the cruel fate of women in a patriarchal society, by poking fun at Dr. Royer Collard’s scandalous marriage to Simone, a girl young enough to be his granddaughter.
The demonstration of Dr. Collard’s domineering behavior towards young Simone gives evidence to the objectification and marginalization of women in 18th century France who, as the Marquis’ stories suggest, possess little sexual agency while at the disposal of men’s desires. When the film first introduces Simone, the picture of virginal purity in a white dress, her attention to the statue of the Madonna and her look of content suggest that she finds her life in the cloister gratifying. Dr. Royer Collard, a dark and foreboding figure in his black attire, corrupts this sacred and peaceful space with his imposing figure and requests to take his bride who “has not yet come of age.” Simone’s desires are literally overshadowed by Royer Collard’s purpose for her. By asking the contractor to make Simone’s bedroom door lockable from the outside and to place bars outside her window, Dr. Royer Collard exercises his control of her—caging her like a pet. The following scene in which Collard rapes Simone, Collard forces his expectations on Simone to engage in sexual acts thereby reinforcing an aggressive stereotype of masculinity. Though the people gossip about Royer Collard “pretending to be a God fearing man” and the disturbing age gap between Simone and the Doctor, no one attempts to dispute the union, not the seemingly pious nuns who cared for her or even the Abbe de Coulmier himself. Given that Dr. Royer Collard symbolizes cultural values of restraint, his indiscretion regarding his lecherous and violent desire for Simone as wells as his apparent pleasure for the pain and torture of his patients’ exposes the deviance buried beneath cultural mores.
The Marquis’ play “Crimes of Love” satirizes the duality of societal customs and what he believes is the ineffectiveness and inanity of religious institutions. To play the part of the nun in his play, de Sade employs the acting talent one of the asylum’s most delusional and simple-witted occupants, which signifies the Marquis’ contempt for religious institutions. In the tale mirroring Simone’s journey from the nunnery to her new station with Dr. Royer Collard, the character representing the Doctor publicly violates the inmate playing Simone in numerous ways, and yet the sophisticated audience laughs without empathy. The levity with which the people view the facsimile of Simone’s humiliation contrasted with their eventual disgust again draws attention to the dichotomous nature of a society torn between an interest in depravity and the suppression of such interests. Dr. Royer Collard’s disruption of the performance denotes society’s reluctance to examine its flaws once brought to light—keeping them hidden to maintain a façade of unquestionable uprightness.