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Thursday, 28 December, 2000, 08:38 GMT
Quills ruffling feathers
Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet as Sade and Madeleine
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

Screen writer Doug Wright is a clean cut, open-faced Texan who candidly admits to being obsessed with the scandalous, censored 18th Century French writer the Marquis de Sade.

The fixation has been with him for eight years and has borne fruit - the star-studded and Oscar-nominated movie Quills, directed by Philip Kaufman.

I was so compelled by the insane drama of Sade's life that I started reading everything he'd written

Doug Wright

"I have been living in the shadow of the Marquis de Sade, and Philip has finally purged him from my life and nightmares and put him into everyone else's," Wright says.

Wright's black comedy is based on his award-winning stage play of the same name.

Sir Michael Caine, Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix are among the actors who agreed to take part in the screen version.

Wright says he is more than happy that both he and his work should be seen to avoid the violent stereotype attached to Sade.

It was with the aim of exploring and shaking up social assumptions over behaviour, censorship and free speech that he wrote Quills.

Joaquin Phoenix as Charenton's kind-hearted Abbé Coulmier

"Art's healthiest function is to critique society and its institutions and make us question what we accept to be true," Wright says.

"The right wing say violence in art leads to violence in the world. The left wing say free expression at any cost.

"I hope what the movie posits is: What if both statements are true?"


Quills enters this debate by painting a half-fiction, half-fact account of the frenzied sequence of events leading up to Sade's death in 1814.

Wright sets his drama in the real-life asylum Charenton, where Sade spent his last 10 years after being banished there by Napoleon.

Sade facts
Full name: Donatien-Alphonse-Françoise de Sade
Born on 2 June, 1740 in Paris
Inspired the word "sadism"
Spent more than 27 years in prison
Escaped a death sentence in 1772
Married to devoutly religious, society woman Renée Pelagie
She fought for Sade's freedom
Sent to Charenton, aged 61
Died 3 December, 1814 of respiratory failure

Sade, played by Oscar-winning Shine actor Geoffrey Rush, continues to write his novels - containing everything from necrophilia to rape.

Laundress Madeleine - played by Kate Winslet - smuggles out the manuscripts to be published and devoured by Sade's fans.

But Napoleon gets wind of Sade's insatiable scribbling and despatches notorious physician Royer-Callard, played by Sir Michael, to find a "cure" for the Marquis' wicked pen.

Everything goes rapidly downhill from then on, as the more Sade is repressed, the more manic and vicious his writing - and methods of expression - become.

Wright first encountered Sade in a biography given to him as a gift - and says he was immediately sucked in.

"I was so compelled by the insane drama of Sade's his life that I started reading everything he'd written," he explains.

"I found his works, more than 200 years old, among the most disturbing, extreme yet exhilarating I'd ever encountered.

"I realised how naive I was to flatter myself that I was so broad-minded - I had to examine Sade further."


Wright used the story of Dr Royer-Collard as a spring-board for his drama.

Royer-Callard was shocked to find Sade writing in his cell and holding literary discussions with inmates.

Sir Michael plays extreme Royer-Callard - here with his young bride Simone

He promptly ordered a police raid to confiscate Sade's work, judged to be "a series of unspeakable obscenities, blasphemies and villainies".

"When I came across the detail, I immediately thought expanding upon it would make for an intriguing story about what happens when you deny a really volatile imagination its only means of expression," explains Wright.

The film is mischievous and dark, compelling and repugnant at the same time. Also worth stressing is that Quills is not in any way pornographic.

Such contradictions are in line with Wright's central debate but also illustrate the complex character of Sade himself.

"I hope I presented him with his strongest attributes of wit, extravagance, tenacity and drive and his negative side which included his rage, violence and narcissism," says Wright.

"Sade was a monster who was nonetheless extremely instructive showing that oppression is often the surest muse."


Wright is effusive about all of his lead actors, but in particular Rush and Winslet.

Of Rush he says: "He was able to present Sade in the full range of his complexity. He brings a malicious glee to the role."

Madeleine is the only character in the movie who has a temperate balanced attitude to Sade's fiction

Doug Wright

As for Winslet, the writer calls her the project's "patron saint" for being the first big name to back the film.

Her role was pivotal to the story, he adds.

"Madeleine is the only character in the movie who has a temperate balanced attitude to Sade's fiction.

"She reads it and is amused by it. It's cathartic for her. Then, she puts it away and carries on with her duties."

Wright says he hopes the French will see Quills as his intended "fantasia on Sade's life".

Overall, he wants his film to strike a chord with adults everywhere.

"I want it to have the historical and artistic import to seduce the arthouse crowd.

"But I also want college kids and older to recognise Sade as the original rebel, before Eminem and Marilyn Manson, and the most incendiary writer that ever lived."



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