Behind Bars: Visual Symbols in QUILLS
3 March 2013
In 2000, Philip Kaufman directed Quills, a cinematic adaptation of Doug Wright’s play. This film is a fictional take on the late life of the Marquis de Sade, the infamous French writer. The film begins in the early 19th century, when Sade (Geoffrey Rush) is committed to an asylum, Charenton, for the violent sexual content and perversity of his writing. In the asylum, he befriends a young laundress, Madeline (Kate Winslet). She admires Sade’s work and helps him by transporting his manuscripts from cell to publisher. Unfortunately, when news breaks that Sade continues publishing his novels from inside Charenton, tensions at the asylum flare. Abbe du Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), a priest working and the asylum, begins punishing Sade for his crime, and, at the same time, Royer-Collard (Michael Caine), a Machiavellian doctor also working at the asylum, becomes personally offended by one of the Sade’s latest lewd stories. When Sade’s vulgarity continues, his punishments become more severe, and he is eventually stripped of all his possessions, even his clothing. Yet, Sade is unrelenting, and his desperate desire to write inevitably has fatal repercussions for all those connected to the tawdry storyteller.
One of the most frequently used symbols in Kaufman’s Quills is metal barriers, most often represented by wrought iron and more traditional prison-style bars. Obviously, because the film takes place in an early 19th century asylum, which serves more like a jail and torture chamber, bars represent imprisonment and are a necessary prop. Yet, figuratively speaking, the bars mean more than just a supportive piece of set design in Quills; Kaufman’s frequent use of the bars and wrought iron symbolize how entrapped and restricted these characters’ lives are.
Without question, Sade is surrounded by bars because his has been declared insane. The audience expects this and Kaufman does surround this character with these inescapable barriers. Yet, even for Sade, the bars represent more than just physical restriction. The bars that bind Sade also remind viewers just how restricted his identity is. Not only are his material possessions lost, but he is a writer who is not allowed to write. Without his quill and parchment (or functional substitutes) he loses himself, and therefore his entire existence is restricted. Kaufman’s continuous use of metal bars in shots of Sade reinforce for the audience that Sade is not only trapped in an asylum, but he is also becomes trapped in a life without pleasure, happiness, or purpose.
Yet, Sade is not the only character restricted by these metal bars; the other three primary characters, Madeline, Doctor Royer-Collard, and Abbe du Coulmier, all workers at the asylum, are also surrounded by this visual cue. By using this symbol with all the characters Kaufman suggests restriction is not reserved for those incarcerated at the asylum; instead, every character in Quills is living a restricted life.
First, Madeline is clearly limited in her life’s experience and confined to her position as laundress at the asylum. She never gets off the asylum’s grounds, which happen to be constricted with metal gates. Even when she takes Sade’s manuscripts to the messenger she must pass the parchment between the openings of a large metal gate which literally and figuratively confines her. Moreover, she is also restricted by her sexual inexperience. Unlike Sade, Madeline is a virgin, limited to a life exposed to sexuality but prevented from exploring it. Her only sexual knowledge comes from Sade’s fiction. Therefore, in addition to the gates that bind her to the asylum, Kaufman often uses wrought iron fencing around Madeline. For example, when Abbe du Coulmier teaches her to read and write there is symbolic wrought iron fencing behind her. Madeline loves Abbe du Coulmier, and he loves her, but their circumstance prevents the two from being together. Kaufman’s use of heavy barriers around Madeline clearly communicate her life is as trapped and restricted as Sade’s.
Another restricted character is Doctor Royer-Collard, and Kaufman carefully includes fencing, gates, and bars around him throughout the film. In some ways the mirror image of Sade, Royer-Collard is a sexual deviant; however, unlike Sade, Royer-Collard keeps that confidential, which restricts him. His sexual deviancy is best understood by the child-bride he takes from a convent and the violent sexual encounter he has with her on their first night together. Based on this scene alone, there is enough evidence to support that Royer-Collard, like Sade, is a sadist. Yet, he follows the “behind closed doors” ideology (at least until the end of the film), restricting his own freedom, just as he restricts Sade’s. Kaufman uses metal bars around Royer-Collard frequently, particularly when the doctor is using water torture on his patients. Other moments when the bars appear around Royer-Collard are in his home, in his office at the asylum, and even outside the asylum as he walks outdoors. Even though Royer-Collard has the most power of all the characters in this film, he is still trapped by his own circumstance: forced to work in an asylum know as “the laughing stock of France,” cheated on by his wife (Simone), and unable to cure the most controversial of all his patients, Sade.
Lastly, Abbe du Coulmier is a restricted character and often surrounded by these barriers, which figuratively represent how limited of a life he lives. Unlike Sade and Royer-Collard, Abbe du Coulmier tends toward masochist. He represses his love for Madeline, as well as his dislike for Royer-Collard and some of the practices at the asylum. He is also constantly surrounded by confining metal and iron barriers, particularly when he is near Madeline, but also when he is being ridiculed by Royer-Collard. By the end his restrictions are no longer figuratively represented by metal barriers; Abbe du Coulmier is literally restricted by bars when he becomes a patient in the asylum.
Interestingly, the only character who resists restriction is Simone (Amelia Warner), and Kaufman does not surround her with metal and iron enclosures the way he does the other characters. Simone realizes rather quickly how precarious her situation is and how restricted her life is as Doctor Royer-Collard’s wife. She rebels by reading Justine, written by Sade. She furthers that rebellion through a romantic tryst with Prouix. Then, she escapes her controlled existence by running off with Prouix to England. Ultimately, the reason Simone is not surrounded by barriers throughout the film is because she has it in her to live a life free from restrictions.
Kaufman’s use of barriers in Quills, be them metal bars and wrought iron reinforces, symbolizes how trapped each character is in their respective circumstance; just as the lack of these barriers suggests a character like Simone is not restricted. Yet, for Madeline, Doctor Royer-Collard, and Abbe du Coulmier, this visual symbol also calls attention to the bleak irony that those working at this asylum are as much its prisoners as those committed to it.