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Geoffrey Rush plays the Marquis de Sade, a patient in an insane asylum in France. His cell is very elaborate in its furnishings with curtains, bedspreads, carpets etc. Juaquin Phoenix is a Catholic priest who runs the asylum and Kate Winslett works in the laundry picking up dirty linen from the inmates.
Kate finds herself attracted to the Marquis and smuggles out pages of a book he is writing in the dirty sheets. She gives the pages to a man that takes them to Paris where they are published. The book is EXTREMELY erotic and offends Napoleon. Napoleon sends Michael Caine to the asylum to change the Marquis' behavior, and to prevent more books from being published. Caine talks to the Joaquin and is assured that nothing further will come from the Marquis.
The Marquis is obsessed with writing and must continue. He lures Winslett into his cell and tells her he will give her another book, but that it will cost her a kiss for every page. She agrees and another book is published. An angered Joaquin takes away the Marquis' quill ink, pen, and paper.
Michael Caine claims a young girl for his wife whom has been living and attending school in a nunnery, She is but 16 years old. They move into a house that was ransacked during the French revolution. In order to restore the home, Caine takes money from the Marquis' wife. The Marquis' wife gives money to Caine so that he will be locked away forever.
Eventually the Caine's young wife becomes fascinated by the Marquis' writings and runs off with the gentleman that was refurbishing the villa. The Marquis still needs to write yet he has no paper, ink, or pens. He writes more on his sheets using wine as ink and a wishbone of a chicken as a quill pen. Kate Winslet smuggles his work out.
Winslet's blind mother also works in the laundry, boiling sheets. Some of the co-workers notice the boiling water is red, and report it to Caine and Joaquin. They realize at once, what has happened and strip the Marquis room bare. The Marquis still needs to write, so he shatters a mirror and uses his own blood to write and continues writing on his clothes. When the priest discovers the writing on the clothes, he orders the Marquis strip naked.
Joaquin and Caine realize that Winslet has been smuggling the transcripts out. Michael Caine has her whipped in public. Joaquin steps in and offers his body in place of hers. It is obvious that the priest really cares for Winslet. Later she offers herself to the the priest but he refuses her advances although he loves her.
Winslet has been ordered removed from the asylum, so she decides she wants one additional book to take with her. It was arranged that the Marquis would dictate the book through holes in the walls, and windows with use of the other prisoners.
Things work well at first, however one of the inmates is a pyro-maniac, and the hole in the wall is large enough that he can reach a candle from the next cell. He sets his bedding on fire, The guards run in and when the cell door opens he rushes out and begins torching other areas of the asylum.
In the insuing chaos, one of the inmates that dislikes Winslet attacks her. Michael Caine hears the struggle but does nothing to help her. The priest and Winslet's mother discover her body in one of the boiling vats.
Joaquin, in order to prevent the Marquis from dictating more books has his tongue cut out. The Marquis, even though naked, and minus his tongue continues to write using his own excrement.
Kate Winslett's body is put on display with a very filmy cloth over it. Joaquin walks over to the body pulls back the sheet and starts to kiss her and fondle her. He starts to climb on top of her body and then her eyes open. She kisses him and holds him as they start to make love. A pounding at his door awakens him . It had been a dream... He was awakened because the Marquis was dying and Joaquin is being called to perform last rites.
While performing these rites, he touches his crucifix to the Marquis' lips. The Marquis swallows the crucifix, and chokes to death.
Joaquin screams in agony
One year later Michael Caine is solely running the asylum and is showing a new priest around. The asylum is now printing, and selling fine copies of the Marquis' books around the world. Joaquin now finds himself as a resident (inmate) against his will.
Winslet's mother smuggles ink, paper, and quill pens into him so that he can write the story of what happened.
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