Quills (2000): Kaufman’s Tale of Marquis de Sade, Starring Geoffrey Rush

In Philip Kaufman’s over the top biopic, “Quills,” Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) portrays the impious and eccentric 18th century French novelist Marquis de Sade (1740-1814).

The prurient madness and maverick writings of Sade are by now legendary, and there have been numerous books and plays about him and his era.

The scenario for Kaufman’s sharply uneven tale is written by Doug Wright, based on his play, and the movie betrays its theatrical origins despite Kaufman’s efforts to open it up.

“Quills” features some of the recurrent issues in Kaufman’s film oeuvre (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “Henry and June”), such as art and censorship, social rebellion, madness and creativity, and the power of art and literature.

As is well known, the writer spent some 30 years in and out of prisons and asylums for acts of sexual offense, and for publishing his banned novels, which melded philosophy and pornography.  He died in an asylum in France.

In this plot, set in 1807, De Sade is in an asylum for the insane, headed by the gentle Abe de Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who believes in treating madness through art.  To that extent, he encourages the Marquis to purge and cleanse his mind by committing his ideas to paper.

Instead, the Marquis gives fully unrestrained expression to his most eccentric, obscene, and downright pornographic ideas, and with the help of a free-spirited laundress (Kate Winslet) smuggles the writings to a publisher.

The books cause such a shocking scandal that Napoleon himself decides to intervene by sending his new administrator Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton to break the spirit of the deviant and defiant Marquis.

Kaufman and his scribe can’t decide about the right tone for the real-life melodrama, and so the story goes from poignant and serious scenes to others that are sensationalistic, trashy, and sleazy.

Thus, there are extraneous scenes that depict naughty sex, orgies, and even necrophilia, presented in an unappealing and unerotic mode, which might have been the director’s design.

The whole movie is over the top, including Rush as the Marquis de Sade, but that the kind of role and acting that the Oscar voters usually go for.

Oscar Nominations:

Best Actor: Geoffrey Rush

Art Director/Set Direction: Martin Childs; Jill Quertier

Costume Design: Jacqueline West

Oscar Awards: None


Oscar Context:

The Best Actor winner was Russell Crowe for Ridley Scott’s historical saga, “Gladiator.”

In 2000, other actors were nominated for playing famous artists, be they directors, painters, and writers.

Javier Bardem received an Oscar nomination for playing the exiled Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) in “Before Night Falls.”

Ed Harris received his first Best Actor nod for portraying famed and troubled painter Jackson Pollack (1912-1956) in “Pollock,” which he also directed

John Malkovich was not nominated for portraying German director FW Murnau (1888-1931) in “Shadow of the Vampire,” a re-creation of the making of his blood-sucking masterpiece, “Nosferatu,” but Willem Dafoe received a Supporting Actor nomination.


Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush)

Madeleine (Kate Winslet)

Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix)

Dr. Royer-Collard)

Madame LeClerc (Billie Whitelaw)

Delbene (Patrick Malahide)

Simone (Amelia Warner)

Renee Pelagis (Jane Meleaus)

Prouix (Stephen Moyer)

Valcour (Tony Pritchard)