|PERVERTING DE SADE by Neil Schaeffer
Reprinted from the Guardian of London,
Saturday January 13, 2001
The Marquis de Sade spent
almost 30 years of his life in various prisons, and what got him there
had almost nothing to do with his writing. His mother-in-law, Mme de
Montreuil, having offered up her wealthy daughter to obtain De Sade's
noble name, became outraged by his sexual scandals with prostitutes and
with her other and most favoured daughter. Finally, Mme de Montreuil,
"the Hyena", as De Sade called her, cut her losses and had him
imprisoned under a lettre de cachet -- by which a prisoner's family
paid his "rent" to keep him in prison.
De Sade's vows of vengeance were stoked up during all those years
locked up in Vincennes and the Bastille and when he was freed after the
revolution, becoming an official of the radical Section des Picques in
Paris, he had the opportunity to wreak that vengeance. The Montreuils
fell under suspicion but this is how he described what he did: "I
caused the Montreuils to be moved on to a list of exculpated persons.
If I had said a word, they would have been roughly handled. I held my
tongue; there, you see how I avenge myself!"
De Sade is much more of a protean, amphibian creature, morphing from
noble to revolutionary, and there is a great deal more to him, much of
it decidedly more complex, interesting, and baffling, than the point
that Quills, the film of his life, tirelessly belabours: that
he is a martyr to the oppression and censorship of church and state.
The movie opens with De Sade at an upper window watching the guillotine
at work during the French revolution's bloodletting terror of September
1793-July 1794. Much later, we are told that this kind of activity
explains the sanguinary streak in his writing. In fact, his bloodiest
and best work, 120 Days of Sodom, was written in the Bastille
-- obviously before the revolution. This is an important book, and to
suggest that it was written late in De Sade's life in the asylum at
Charenton, where he spent the last 11 years of his life until his death
in 1814, does the book and the viewer a disservice.
De Sade was not at the height of his literary career nor of his
literary powers at Charenton. Nor was he the imposing physical specimen
implied by the tall, trim figure of the Australian actor Geoffrey Rush,
who plays him in the film. At most, De Sade was of middling height.
More to the point, his suffering and unhappiness had taken their toll.
He had eaten himself into a considerable, even a grotesque, obesity. He
was fortunate at Charenton to have come under the protection of the
asylum's progressive and gentle director, the Abbé de Coulmier,
who encouraged De Sade to direct the other inmates and some
professional actors in plays that soon attracted substantial and even
fashionable audiences. This new therapy certainly had a beneficial
effect on De Sade's spirit and energy. But the plays he put on were
conventional warhorses of the Paris stage. There was no violent and
sexual orgy scene as the movie depicts.
Just as Rush in no way resembles De Sade, the handsome Joaquin Phoenix
could never be mistaken for Coulmier, who, in fact, stood only four
feet tall and was severely misshapen. This odd couple came to have a
very good effect on each other. Coulmier was perhaps the first true
male friend Sade made in his life, and this may indicate that some
improvement had taken place in his mental health.
The movie sacrifices the truth of this relationship and of Coulmier's
own fate 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. Indeed, 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. The villain of the piece is made out
to be Dr Royer-Collard. True, there was such a person, and he did
disapprove of Coulmier's drama therapy as well as De Sade's presence in
a hospital environment when he should have been in a prison. But De
Sade had never been convicted of anything, including publishing
pornography. When Royer-Collard was finally able to install his protege
as Coulmier's replacement, the drama therapy had long ago been
suspended, and while De Sade did lose some of his privileges, he was
already in the last year of his life.
Of all the characters in the movie, Royer-Collard, played by Michael
Caine, is the one that is the most inflated for melodramatic and
didactic effect: he is given an underage orphan bride straight out of a
nunnery; he is made into a sadistic husband and a fiendish tyrant in
the asylum; and he is provided with the most implausible, seemingly
ironic twist of fate to perform at the end.
The single didactic message of the movie is that the seemingly good
people are all bad underneath, are all hypocrites, while the seemingly
bad person, De Sade, probably has some redeeming qualities: he tells it
like it is, and apparently did not take sexual advantage of the young
chambermaid (Madeleine LeClerc, played by Kate Winslet) with whom he
was so friendly. However, De Sade's last journal makes it clear that he
had been having a regular sexual liaison with the 18-year-old
chambermaid from her early teens until the week before he died.
In the film, the chambermaid/laundress smuggles De Sade's manuscripts
out to his Paris publisher. In reality, this task was performed, quite
unmelodramatically, by De Sade's companion of many years, Mme Quesnet,
who was permitted to have a room at Charenton so she could be with him.
The movie totally ignores this stable relationship and instead intrudes
impossible and misleading scenes with De Sade's wife, who had formally
separated from him after the revolution.
Moreover the manuscripts Mme Quesnet smuggled out were not the
dangerous novel Justine (whose much earlier publication had
made his embarrassed family seek to hide him away in Charenton), but
primarily a number of fairly conventional novels, as well as some stage
plays he had written in his youth and which he hoped to have performed
by the Comédie Française. He kept revising them in vain
hopes of their acceptance.
In the last year of his life, he received yet another publisher's
rejection letter. This time, he could not misinterpret its brutal
clarity:"truly reprehensible... such a capital fault in a subject like
this...inventions impossible not to find unfortunate... sheer
'melodrama'...written in verse that almost never rises to the level of
What is the harm in misrepresenting the true nature of De Sade's life
and career? After all, some of the events in the movie did really
happen to him at some time or other. Of course, playwrights and
movie-makers are not under oath when they show us their work. And
without condensation, there can be no art. The artist must make choices
to put some things in and leave others out, a rule that applies to
biographers as well. But if a biographer makes a mish-mash of his
subject, there is hell to pay. If a movie does the same, there could be
talk of Academy awards for all concerned, as there has been in this
The viewer of Quills should be aware that what he is seeing is
not De Sade. 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
The movie-makers and reviewers alike seem to think that the main point
of De Sade's life and writing is to oppose censorship. In fact, his
main obsession was to push the limits -- sexual, spiritual, and
political -- as a means of feeling out the limits of his times and of
his own mind. If there were no limits, there would be no meaning. When
De Sade performed a sexual act with a prostitute and a communion wafer,
he cried, "If you are God, avenge yourself!" The perversions were
rhetorical acts at least as much as sexual ones. They were a way of
opening a dialogue with the powers that be and with nature itself.
In the same way, censorship was important to De Sade's way of thinking;
he felt compelled to challenge it. Quills 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.
De Sade was an extremist on both sides. He plunged as deeply into the
psyche as anyone had done before or since, yet he also sought some
meaning, even if it were only punishment from above. "If you are God,
avenge yourself!" God did not have to. The pity is that Quills