Marquis de Sade's Justine (1969)
By: Mr Intolerance on June 10, 2009  | 
DVD
Blue Underground (USA). All Regions, NTSC. 1.66:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 124 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Jess Franco
Starring: Romina Power, Maria Rohm, Klaus Kinski, Mercedes McCambridge, Akim Tamiroff, Jack Palance
Screenplay: Peter Welbeck
Country: Spain, Italy, France
External Links
Purchase IMDB YouTube
I don't ever think it's a good idea to try to film the works of the Marquis de Sade in a literal fashion. The scope is too massive, the perversion too extreme for the screen to be done faithfully to the novel, the nature of the parent text too sprawling, dense and, let's face it, repetitive to keep an audience's attention for the requisite amount of time. Nevertheless, exploitation maestro Jess Franco gives it the good old College try in this remarkably lavish adaptation of the book that landed its author in gaol, and then the Charenton asylum, where he eventually died, after having written and directed plays for the other inmates to perform. Apparently after Napoleon had come to power and the Marquis was still at liberty at this point post-overthrow of the Reign of Terror, one read of the text so enraged the diminutive tyrant that he declared Justine; or The Misfortunes of Virtue to be such an outrageously offensive, scandalous, scatological and blasphemous book that he wanted the author in the slot, tout suite. And that said, if you read the fully unexpurgated text, it is indeed still a nasty piece of work. To film it as is, using the novel as a basis for the script, you would have to have balls made of brass to try and get it done. To say it's full of really nasty sex and violence is an understatement to the effect of saying being stranded in the middle of the Gobi desert without any water would be a slightly unpleasant experience.

De Sade's works are novels, but basically they're philosophical texts as well, many of his characters used as mouthpieces for de Sade's own beliefs in libertinage. They're novels of ideas, and the cartoonish excesses to which the characters go to achieve their own ends of pleasure at any cost are basically written in such an over-the-top fashion as to make sure that we don't miss the point, as well as to spice up the sction as it were for the audience, who let's face facts, are there for the cheap titillation. Pornography+sadistic violence+philosophy= de Sade. When your name is subsumed into the lexicon of cruelty (Sade/sadism – geddit? Just the same as Leopold Von Sascher-Masoch (author of Venus In Furs, also filmed by Franco) – masochism) you've got a reputation to live up to – Justine is not letting the team down.

The story has a framing narrative, with de Sade (Kinski, although Franco had wanted Orson Welles to play the part, and Welles had surprisingly agreed to do it, until he read the script) arriving in gaol, and putting pen to paper, which is a slight reversal of the actual events. It's a rather psychedelic scene, interspersed with some garishly red and green lit shots of chained and abused women seemingly tormenting the author, presumably because he can't get amongst it himself, and has to live through his pen, rather than his penis.

Justine, along with her sister Juliette (she got her own book, too: Juliette; or, The Prosperity of Vice, to have been filmed by Franco, but plans halted when regular Franco starlet, the gorgeous Soledad Miranda, tragically died in an automotive accident), is an orphan who has just been 86ed from the local orphanage to make her own way in the world. Juliette, who can see that things are pretty rotten in the modern world goes her own way into the world of badness – prostitution, gambling, etc, and does very well indeed and has a whale of a time doing so, but we'll come back to her later. Justine (played by Romina Power, 18 year old daughter of Hollywood legend Tyrone Power, at the studio's insistence; Franco wanted Rosemary Dexter for the role – she gets a bit part as one of the prostitutes at the start of the film and has more presence in her big toe than Power has in her scrawny body) decides to live in a more christian way, and boy, does she pay for it. Living in the world like Christ might be alright for the son of God with a strong support network of disciples and family, but trying it on your own when you have no experience of how crummy the world is, and it's a shark-eat-shark world out there, virtuous living is not going to cut the mustard in terms of being able to live a good life.

Juliette (Rohm, producer Harry Alan Towers' girlfriend and later wife at the time) gets hired by the local knocking shop, Justine, prim and prudish (not to mention unworldly) heads off to the nearest church where, to set the scene for what happens to her for the rest of the film, she gets ripped off of all the money she has, by the abbott. That's what you get for trusting in religion, or in the kindness of strangers, for that matter. The corruption of the clergy is a very familiar theme to anyone who's read any de Sade – chuch authority figures are usually the worst and most perverted of any authority figures out there (consider the Bishop in The 120 Days of Sodom – a worse, more depraved catamite you will not find in literature). I guess their corruption is so horrible because they preach such drivel about good – probably also why hypocrites have their own level in Hell in Dante's Inferno (Bowge 6 of the second Nether-Hell on the 8th ring, if you must know).

Justine gets sent to a house to live a servant's life, sans her 100 crowns (a fuck of a lot of money back in the day), gets accused of thievery by her lecherous boss and thrown in the slammer, minus most of her clothes, which her erstwhile employer sells for a couple of bucks. While she's going through the first of many low-points in her life, Juliette is learning the tricks of the trade, as it were, of being a hooker. This is not a problem for her, and she enjoys the work, too, as much for the sex as for the money it brings. She is a dirty girl, it works admirably for her, and good luck to her, I say. Given the fact that in the late 18th century a woman's life must have been utter rubbish, even if from the educated upper classes, she's managed to make it work for her – an empowered woman indeed (although I wouldn't go so far as to call her a proto-feminist or anything given her means of coming out on top), and all through bucking the system and looking out for #1. Justine follows the system and gets screwed at every turn, and always against her will – that's in the literal as well as figurative sense.

And let's quickly cut back to some words of wisdom from the Marquis at this point, just to really ram the point home that a virtuous life is doomed to disaster, whereas the kind of shenanigans Juliette gets up to lead to the good stuff. De Sade is visited by visions of women again (specifically Justine and Juliette), sheeted figures like a kid dressed as a ghost for Hallowe'en. The camerawork in these scenes (Franco, apparently, who worked alone with Kinski in these moments, all shot in two days – one for exteriors, one for interiors, although producer Towers claims it was all done in half a day) is sub-par, and a little too reminiscent of some of Franco's lesser, and far less budgeted, work. Inspiration for the nutter to write? Images of remorse (which would be totally out of character for the Marquis, who died as he lived, an unrepentant scoundrel who'd just completed a monumental ten volume manuscript of filth called The Days at Florbelle – an epic of perversion and sadism burned by de Sade's son after the author's death because it was so depraved)? Who can say? I think it's just some general weirdness to balance out the nasty, just like the moments of camp black humour that crop up here from time to time. The humour I think is necessary, because you can't have shade without light – if this was all unremittingly bleak, the bad stuff that happens would cease to have any impact, because there'd be nothing to off-set it.

The sets on which the film is shot look a little too artificial, lit in the same garish fashion as de Sade's dream sequences; think: the bad-guy's hideouts in the old 1960s Batman TV series. The location work looks superb, on the flipside, and the camerawork is certainly up to scratch – this was Franco's golden period, when his films really show-cased his flair for cinematography. Given a budget, this guy could really make a movie.

Anyway, so Justine is in the pokey under threat of execution, when she meets a proper villain, Dubois (McCambridge, in a positively zesty performance, obviously enjoying herself immensely), a murderess, thief and corrupter of the young. Dubois means to leave the prison, and for her own reasons, will take Justine with her. Our heroine still hasn't worked out that people don't do things for no gain in this world, and now that she's joined a gang of thieves, she's got to pull her own weight and use her own...shall we say "natural attributes" in order to get by. At this point, I must reiterate that Franco is not really an action director, and the prison break scene is not one of the more effective sequences in the film. Character study is his strong point, but only when given a workable canvas to work with – Power is not that canvas, as can be seen through the fact that every bit part actor on the screen with her dominates the scene entirely – and when you're paying more attention to an obviously drunk 40 year old man ranting in a bizarre fashion rather than a naked 18 year old girl with nice boobs, I think that says something about the presence an actor brings to the screen.

Juliette, on the other hand, is developing quite the taste for crime. She needs little or no prompting to do whatever it takes to get ahead in the world, even in the microcosm of the brothel in which she works. And get ahead she does. What are a few murders between friends, after all? Justine, however, still just simply doesn't get it. The world is not what she thinks it is, and people are not intrinsically good and feeling obliged to help out the downtrodden. Y'know, by this point the point of the film has been made and moreso; anything else is just gilding the lily. However, subtlety was never Jess Franco's long suit, so we plunge on regardless.

Justine flees from the thieves and runs into an artist, Raimond, who takes her under his care, clothing and feeding her. For Justine, this is like all her Christmases have come at once – finally, someone will help her without trying to play any nudey prod games. A sensitive fella, Raimond wants to treat Justine well, but do you think either Franco or de Sade will let that happen? Like fuck! And so she's on the run again, with the coppers after her – true happiness in de Sade's world will never be achieved by the good and pure. Justine flips out of one frying pan into the nearest convenient fire – she happens upon the Chevalier de Bressac and his boyfriend Jasmine making out in the woods, and after a brief scuffle, becomes lady-in-waiting to de Bressac's wife (a slight deviation from the parent text – de Bressac is the wayward nephew in the novel, I guess having him as the husband in the film makes the desire for her death seem all that more immediate, and more relevant to a modern audience). Things seem to be going well for our girl, nice job, nice clothes, preferment at work, enormous hair, no-one's tried to rape her for the last three months – you just know that de Sade is going to yank the rug out from under our feet almost immediately.

De Bressac wants Justine to poison his wife for her money. You knew things were too good to last. Of course our girl isn't up to the task, and she's going to pay for it. She had her chance to be part of the job, blew it and now she's going to be literally branded as a murderess, de Bressac's patsy for the death of his wife. Time to flee, Justine. Juliette, however, is living high on the hog, having slain her accomplice and taken her share of their earnings. Crime, it would seem, does pay.

This is where we move into one of the film's more bizarre moments, when Justine goes to the monastery presided over by Brother Antonin, an utterly insane Jack Palance (I really can't describe how weird his performance is – it's truly one of the most exaggerated and strange interpretations of a character I can possibly imagine; Lord knows what Franco had to do to get Palance to act in such a fashion).

It's worth talking about the performances here. Power, as I've said before, is rubbish, but the supporting cast really go in boots and all like Blucher with some exaggerated performances which match the cartoonish roles de Sade wrote in the first place. The positively outlandish performance by Jack Palance is a case in point – his delivery of lines has to be seen and heard to be believed. You might watch this thinking, "oh, that's just ridiculous", but if you've read de Sade, the characters are so larger than life in the first place that seeing them portrayed in such a way makes perfect sense. In that regard, Franco definitely succeeded in his direction. I was roaring with laughter at some of what we see going on here – so stagey, so hammy, and yet at the same time, still so appropriate to an adaptation of the Marquis' work.

It's not a very conventional monastery, let me tell you, and not just because of Palance's...umm..."bravura" performance as Antonin. These men have cloistered themselves away for the purpose of pleasure, having a small harem of women they keep on hand for torture and general mischief. Justine soon realises she's landed in the shit again with a bunch of weirdos (including exploitation regular Howard Vernon in an outrageously bad wig – I kept expecting Paul Muller or Jack Taylor to drift through a scene or two) who want to do badness to her. Justine becomes a plaything for the men in the monastery, chained up, pierced with needles and otherwise abused – and yet Romina Power's performance fails to summon up the horror that de Sade's Justine experiences. She's flatter than a tack. Me, I'd be screaming the house down and doing the Curly Shuffle in agony given the tortures she suffers. I know that part of the point is that Justine becomes innured to her suffering, but I just don't buy the performance.

The general point of the book has been missed here, as Franco himself realises in the special features. In the novel, Justine eventually learns to appreciate her maltreatment, and becomes a masochist – the pain she endures affirms her, as it means that she has retained her purity through not willingly living a life of debauchery (oh, sure, she says something to that point at the monastery, but the acting is so bad that we never really believe her). What she doesn't seem to understand, and I'm pretty sure that this is de Sade's point, is that if she came at these horrors on her own terms, and compromised the principles she's been taught, she'd live a much more prosperous life in a great deal more comfort. The reason it's been missed is due to appalling miscasting – Romina Power is, frankly, as wooden as the coffee-table the lap-top I'm writing this on is currently perched on. She has zero personality, and despite the fact that Justine de Sade, an inferior take on the same story is an absolute snooze-fest, saucy exploitation scream-queen Alice Arno really makes the character come to life, even if she does play her up a little more than she probably should (for which we should be grateful, as otherwise the film would bore the bollocks off a concrete elephant). Justine never makes that leap into unconsciously betraying herself and her ideals, because Power simply can't summon the acting prowess to portray her as more than a one-dimensional figure – as Franco himself puts it, "Snow White lost in the woods...Bambi 2". This is not the film he set out to make, and she is certainly not the actor he wanted for the role. Another exploitation movie chance gone missing.

A freak of Nature helps Justine to escape, re-affirming de Sade's view of the arbitrariness of Nature; that's one of his prime ideas – that Nature is fickle and could kill us all if given the chance, and so her Perils of Pauline struggle goes on. Found in the road by a nobleman, you'd think life was on the up-turn for the young lady, but by this point of the film we all know better. What goes up, must come down. And with the re-introduction of the character of Dubois, and her gang, that down is likely to be pretty spectacular. Public humiliation is reasonably spectacular, as Justine is paraded around nude for the general populace to gawk at, much to her mortification (although unlike a work Xmas party a friend of mine attended, no-one throws chicken wings at the naked chick – I have some fucked up friends). Matter of fact, it's our mortification, too – the person parading her about on stage is an atrociously dubbed Jess Franco in a turban. I did find it ironic that Franco's cameo was as a man delighting in showing nude women to an audience. No one can say that the fella doesn't have a sense of humour about himself...

Of course, things are never that easy for Justine, as you may remember, she was branded with the mark of a murderer, framed for the death of Marquise de Bressac, and so once that's been spotted, the people want her executed. It's about then that Juliette, now the mistress of the Comte de Corville, reappears in the story, and things wind to a very unlikely, un-Sadean and ultimately anti-climactic close, and not the one in the novel, where Justine is struck down by an indiscriminate bolt of lightning – which frankly, I was looking forward to.

Did I enjoy it? Sure I did. I make no bones about the fact that I'm a Jess Franco fan, despite some of the filmic hate-crimes he's committed to celluloid. I'm also an avid reader of the Marquis de Sade, so it was a no-brainer that I'd watch this and more than likely enjoy it – apart from the ending, which was weak, and not anything like I'd expect from either the Marquis or the anti-authoritarian bearded Spaniard jazz musician/director. That one flaw aside, I do consider this to be one of Franco's more accomplished films, and certainly his grandest in terms of scope and scale. Does it contain the feel of the Marquis' works? Yes, until the last ten minutes – it has the brutality, the mordant sense of humour, the cynicism, but there is a certain something lacking, and it's not to do with the lack of graphic on-screen depictions of sex and violence (that would have been ridiculous to even attempt in 1968). Not sure what it is, but something, a kind of uncharacteristic reserve perhaps – or maybe just the casting of Romina Power in the title role, led me to judge this film as a flawed gem. That said, if you're a Franco fan this should be in your collection.
Video
Very good indeed – the anamorphic widescreen (well, just at 1.66:1) print is pristine, and the colours are sumptuous. This film, with all the period piece sets and costumes, looks like it cost a lot more than its one million dollar budget (still a fair whack of money at the time, back in '68). A crystal clear picture.
Audio
Again, I feel the need to praise Bruno Nicolai's score – not too shabby at all. He's worked on a few Franco films, and this score is one of his best. He's tried to represent the musical sounds of the day, and has done an admirable job of doing so. Aside from that, well, it's not a bad soundtrack, considering it's a 2 channel mono job. Adequate to the task at hand.
Extra Features
Not a great deal, unfortunately. Besides the French theatrical trailer, a poster and still gallery and a text bio and filmography of director Jess Franco, the only interesting feature is "The Perils and Pleasures of Justine", a brief collection of interviews with director Franco (always a reliably interesting interview subject) and producer Harry Alan Towers. The interviews with Franco are a hoot – he flatly contradicts Towers on some points, refers to lead actress Romina Power as "furniture" and says that she couldn't act, at one point admits that he had no qualms about having Mercedes McCambridge actually beat her up on screen to get the appropriate reaction, enthuses about working with Klaus Kinski (which many other directors might be hesitant to do), and reveals that Jack Palance was drunk all the time, starting on red wine at 7am on set – might account for that outrageous performance of his (I'm not pointing any fingers, by the way – I'm drinking white wine at 9am writing this – might account for the review!). He has to be the most direct interviewee I've ever come across – always calls a spade a fucking shovel, and I like that. Get him onto the subject of censorship, wind him up and watch him go...
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
This is probably the most lavishly made Jess Franco film – I'll guarantee he never had this kind of budget to play around with again, what with the sets and the costumes and so forth. As such, it looks the business and plays out as a reasonable literal adaptation of de Sade's novel. It succeeds on a number of levels, but fails due to the fact that the lead actress is little better than cinematic plankton. With better casting of the lead role, this film could have been so much more than it is. As such, it's a notable film in the canon of a director with about 200 films to his credit, and who's still grinding 'em out now that he's in his 80s (is there such a thing as an exploitation film life-time achievement award?), and definitely worth your time viewing if sexploitation or de Sade hold any fascination for you.

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