De Sade: Reinventing his story
Richard Sharpe and Horatio Hornblower are fictional characters, but the events which form a backdrop to their adventures, all the sound and fury of the Napoleonic Wars, are historical fact. Writers like Allan in his novels of Imperial Rome and Mary Renault with her Alexander Trilogy have made more direct use of people and events from history, with the implication that, while things may not have gone down exactly as described, what appears on the page is at least true to the spirit of historicity. But how far are we allowed to go in diverging from known fact before what is presented as historical enactment becomes pure fantasy?
I ask this apropos of the film Quills, ostensibly a factual account of the final days of the Marquis De Sade (1740 - 1814), one of history's most intriguing figures, author of Justine, Juliette, Philosophy in the Boudoir and The 120 Days of Sodom, his name now synonymous with a sexual preference. In 1803 the irascible photographer was consigned by his desperate family to the lunatic asylum at Charenton, in the vain hope that he wouldn't do anything more to harm their good name and as the only realistic alternative to a more ignominious imprisonment, and though not mad he remained there until he died.
Quills is an excellent film, with a first rate cast, Geoffrey Rush in the lead role being especially good. Like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in period dress it rolls along making you laugh and cry, feel anger and despair, ending on a note every bit as uplifting and cathartic as Chief Bromden's escape, with the posthumous victory of Sade's writing and conversion of his worst enemy. It's an important film, with important things to say about censorship and the obsessive need to write. And, if none of that convinces you to at least check out the video, I should also mention that Kate Winslett gets her kit off.
My only problem with the film is that, while the bare bones on which the plot is built are factual, many of the most crucial details are fabricated.
Rush in the film is yomping about naked on top of tables and exchanging bon mots with his gaolers. Sade when he entered Charenton was sixty three years old and seriously obese, his manner described by one observer as 'polite to the point of obsequiousness'. By 1809 he was partially blind, while suffering severely from gout and rheumatism.
It's true that while resident in Charenton Sade wrote and produced plays, but these were performed by professional actors and not the inmates themselves, except for a few minor parts allocated to the more capable. And no record exists of a play called The Assassination of Marat. That particular 'fact' is down to Peter Weiss' absurdist drama of the 1960s, The Marat/Sade.
In the film Sade is churning out porn day and night, his work smuggled out to an eager audience. In reality Sade's career as a pornographer ended in 1807 with a police raid and seizure of The Days at Florbelle and, far from being a fearless advocate of literary freedom, a good deal of his energies were expended in denying authorship of the more outrageous novels. His twilight years, the very period with which Quills concerns itself, were taken up by vast historical novels, most with a moral and religious slant entirely agreeable to his captors, therefore largely unpublished and unknown.
The examples of Sade's work that we do get, prurient peasants chorlting over the salacious exploits of bawdy men and saucy maids, and eliciting a similar response from the audience, make Sade seem like nothing so much as Benny Hill in breeches and powdered periwig. They are mild and innocuous, and do a disservice to a writer who at his most representative was neither of those things, but presumably scenes of flagellation, coprophagy, necrophilia, urolagnia et al might have alienated the audience. It's ironic that, while stoutly defending Sade's right to self-expression, quills bowdlerises him in this manner.
The film loses touch with history completely in its account of Sade's death. Denied pen and ink he writes with his own blood. Naked and in chains he daubs words on his prison wall with excrement. The man refuses to be silenced. He kills himself by swallowing a priest's crucifix. It's great drama, but a total fabrication. Sade wasn't denied writing materials and he wasn't put in chains. He died peacefully in his sleep with a doctor at his bedside. He was aged seventy four and had been looking forward to a visit by his mistress the next day. Dull, but true.
History is reputedly written by the winners, and in Quills the Marquis de Sade is certainly portrayed as a winner, the writer in shackles with whom we identify and side with against the bureaucrats who can't be allowed to keep a good man down. The film is true to Sade's spirit, but when the facts are so grossly distorted for the sake of a good story how is that really any different from the censorship it feigns to deplore?