Saturday, June 23, 2012

Justine (1969)

AKA Deadly Sanctuary 

When it comes to film adaptations of works by the Marquis de Sade, I think it’s safe to say the most obvious one that comes to the mind of most people is probably Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous final film Salò, based on Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I say the most obvious as that film carries a reputation almost as notorious as Sade himself. Unquestionably one of, if not the most persecuted writer to ever pick up a pen, Sade was a true rebel in every sense of the word, spending a good majority of his adult life in prison because of his writings. Sade did more than just write about lurid subject matter, he philosophized it. Along with all the perversities contained in his work, there was always underlying commentaries and harsh criticisms on government, religion (especially religion), society and the aristocracy, which Sade himself was actually born into, yet he wasn’t afraid to call it out on it’s own bullshit, he saw through all the fakeness and wanted no part of it. In fact it’s been said that one of the first times he got in trouble with the law was because he refused to attend the king’s birthday party. The man, to put it bluntly, had balls, and as is all to often the sad case in history, was punished for it. Anyway, back to my original point, while Pasolini’s Salò might be the most well known Sade adaptation, many a director (European especially) drew inspiration from the Marquis, one such being Jess Franco, who brought one of Sade’s most essential and infamous works, the classic Justine to the screen in 1969, and the material couldn’t have been more suitable.

Upon receiving the news of their father’s death, sisters Justine (Romina Power) and Juliette (Maria Rohm) are forced out of the nunnery where they were living out onto the streets of 17th century France. The two are complete opposites in not only appearance but in mentality. Justine, a naive and venerable virgin, leads a life of virtue and goodness, while her sister Juliette is prone to vice. Juliette clams to know of a place where they can stay, but when Justine discovers that this sanctuary is in fact, a whorehouse, she decides she wants no part of it, and sets out on her own. While working as a maid, she is falsely accused of theft and imprisoned. She manages to escape with another inmate, Madame Dubois, an infamous murderous (Mercedes McCambridge), yet only to find more misfortune, cruelty and numerous attempts at corrupting her innocence at every turn, as she is branded a murderer and taken prisoner by a group of sadistic libertine monks led by the deranged Brother Antonin (Jack Palance), amongst other things. Despite all the hardships she is forced to suffer, she never loses her faith and virtue, while her Juliette on the other hand has made a comfortable and very profitable living indulging in crime and vice.

Marquis de Sade
While this film might not be a literal translation of the book to screen for the obvious reasons, thematically speaking, it‘s fairly faithful. There are, of course differences from the book, certain events are left out and the differences between the ending of the book and film are miles apart, but for the most part the ideas contained in the book are present throughout the film. There might not seem like a lot of substance beneath this poor girl being abused and mistreated for 2 hours but there actually is a point to all of it. The subtitle of the book was The Misfortunes of Virtue, or on certain publications Good Conduct Well Chastised, and what Sade was basically trying to get across was that it’s those who chose the path of vice that lead rewarding lives while the lives of the virtuous are wrought with pain and grief, while also taking shots at some of his favorite targets along the way. Although he didn’t write the screenplay, it’s apparent that Franco got Sade, you can tell that from watching his other Sade based films as well. There’s a telling scene involving somewhat of a role reversal, where Brother Antonin suggests to Justine that she is in essence, a masochist, that her idea of virtue is enduring all this pain, that she is the sinner and that he, the libertine is the saint. There are points in the film where Justine actually does find sanctuary with good people, only for it to be short lived, as she is either forced to run away, or in one instance implicated in the poisoning of her good hearted house mistress. Pure Sade. It’s also an interesting adaptation on account of including Sade himself as a character, played by Klaus Kinski, as sort of a narrator, as there are cut away scenes throughout the film showing Sade in a jail cell, either dreaming or hallucinating the material and writing it all down. Believe it or not, Justine is actually one of Sade’s more tame works in terms of content, and this film isn’t as extreme or explicit as one might think considering the source material, so you if your expecting pure sexploitation you’ll be a bit let down in that department, although remember the author and director, so naturally there is sadism and to be found and some lesbianism thrown in for good measure.

One subject concerning this film that has a tendency to spark a debate is the performance of Romina Power. Franco has made is perfectly clear that he wanted Rosemary Dexter to play the titular lead role (Dexter does have a small role as the mentor of Juliette) but the studio higher up’s insisted on Power. It’s true that Power wasn’t a seasoned actress, and does stumble a bit during the film, but I wouldn’t go so far as to compare her to a window dummy or a piece of furniture as Franco has in interviews. To me, Power was, for the most part, believable in the role as she conveyed all of Justine‘s virtuous qualities, as well as her naivety and vulnerability, someone who was unaware of all the evils of the world and finding out first hand. The scene where she escapes the prison with Dubois sums it up perfectly for me, when she asks Dubois why she chose to escape with her, Dubois response is “Because you look so innocent”. Indeed she does, and she’s also downright adorable. Sympathetic from the first instant she’s on screen, 20 minutes into the film and onward you’ll want to give the poor thing a hug. The girl goes though hell. The one performance most people remember from the film comes from Jack Palace who delivers one of the looniest, most drunken and out there performances in cinematic history as Brother Antonin, it’s almost beyond description. It’s called “outrageous” on the back of the DVD and that word couldn’t be more fitting. Equally eccentric but nowhere near as over the top is Mercedes Cambridge (the voice of Pazuzu in The Exorcist in case you didn’t know). Every time she’s on screen she looks like she’s about the break out into dance, and indeed that does happen in one of the films more random moments when her and her fellow inmates have an impromptu dance party before her escape. While the role of Juliette isn’t huge, Maria Rohm is always dependable, with out without clothing. Then there’s Kinsi as the imprisoned Sade who has no lines, he basically just makes intense faces reacting to his “visions”, although when has Kinski NOT been intense? Also keep an eye out for Euro goddess Rosalba Neri as one of the monks captives and Franco himself making an appearance as a sort of hype man for a street fair attraction.

Justine benefited from having the biggest budget Franco ever had for one of his films (he claims on set it was referred to as a “fake big film”) and indeed it is a pretty epic period piece and it goes without saying it’s an amazing looking film. As is always the case, Franco’s eye for scenery is more than apparent, as every single location and set piece, from the French countryside to some of the more lavish places Justine seems to find herself in look fantastic and is used to perfection, plus the 17th century vibe does come off as authentic with the costumes and things of that nature. Franco plays is straight for the most part, but there are moments where his trademark style comes into play, most notably during the scenes involving Sade in his cell. Remember we’re giving the impression that Sade is having these visions of the material so naturally they’re dreamlike in nature. The first few moments of the film are full of Franco’s classic zoom in on an object and zoom out to something else technique, be it a close up of Sade’s vision of Justine or a row of girls in stock like device (not sure what the technical name of the device is). The segment of Justine being tortured in the monk’s dungeon gives off that same trippy nightmarish, almost surreal effect. Speaking of that dungeon, it’s one of the best looking sets in the film, and Franco’s choice of lighting with an emphasis on red and green worked wonders. The scenes leading up to Justine’s final moments at the monks château also benefit from the same lighting techniques. The films epic feeling is aided immensely by Bruno Nicolai’s lush, outstanding score, which plays a huge part in helping the film achieve the 17 century ascetic. Every scene is enhanced by it, and to think Nicolai almost didn’t get the gig. Franco had to convince the studio that he was the right man for the job, and had Nicolai not done the score, the overall feeling of the film would have been drastically different.
The best version of the book to get. Along
with Justine, you also get other essential Sade
such as Philosophy in the Bedroom, Eugenie de
Franval, and Dialogue Between a Priest and a
Dying Man 

Along with Justine, Franco would again turn to the Marquis for material in 1969 with Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion, one of his masterpieces, an adaptation of Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, which also features Maria Rohm in a more prominent role, if you want to see how good she is at playing a Sadian villain check her out in that. Franco would also go on to helm a retelling of Sade’s novella Eugénie de Franval with Eugenie de Sade, featuring the stunning Soledad Miranda, and he would eventually direct a very similar film called Wicked Memoirs of Eugenie. You can find clear Sade influences in films such as Plaisir a 3 (which is essentially yet another take on Philosophy in the Bedroom) and Countess Perverse (review coming soon) as well. Justine might be one of Franco’s more accessible films, but at the same time it’s not without it’s share of oddness (and sometimes comical moments, tell me Romina Power getting spanked by a stuttering Akim Tamiroff isn’t chuckle inducing. Then there’s that aforementioned random prison dance off). Franco in general is an acquired taste, but while I don’t think you need to be part of some niche group to enjoy Justine, I would say you might have to been a certain mood for a type of film like this, regardless of your thoughts on Sade. I’d also like to add that Sade got one of the best book reviews ever for Justine by none other that Napoleon Bonaparte, who by the way, was responsible for Sade spending his last years incarcerated, and I quote, "Justine is the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination". To this day that quote is still printed on copies of Justine.

No comments:

Post a Comment