de Sade's Justine
DVD Release Date: Nov.
= Highest Rating
crap bigger than you."
Thus spoke actor Jack Palance in his most well-known
film role, that of the aged, leathery cowpoke
in City Slickers.
Well, Jack, I bet you can't crap bigger than
this movie... That'd be one hell of a tall
order. Marquis de Sade's
Justine is simply awful, a tedious, bungled
adaptation of the 1791 novel by literature's most
infamous libertine. Even the spectacle of seeing
Hollywood great Palance delivering one of the
worst performances of all time isn't amusing enough
to save it. Some of the choices made by director
Jess Franco, particularly regarding the story's
framing device (featuring a silent Klaus Kinski),
only compound the damage.
knew I was in trouble when, in the first three
minutes of the film, I'd already begun to fidget
it only took that long before the query "Where
the hell are they going with this?" sprang
to mind. The flick opens with the Marquis De Sade
(Kinski) being locked up in prison. The grand
orchestral music of composer Bruno Nicolai swells
potently as Kinski mopes about his cell, looking
this way and that, standing and sitting, lying
down and getting up. He has no lines of dialog.
Franco's camera zooms in and zooms out, often
out of focus. (This just goes on and on; some
of the shots look like bad test footage any sensible
editor would've cut.) After what seems like an
eternity the Marquis begins to experience hallucinatory
visions of ghostlike figures draped in white sheets
and naked women in chains. He snatches up quill
and ink and begins writing, inspired to create
his tale of Justine. Finally we hear a voice —
that of the narrator —
but it is not Kinski. Oddly, it's Jack Palance
(who plays a different role in the film and doesn't
appear until roughly the 90 minute mark) providing
the voice of De Sade here, reading passages from
the novel. While his voice-over work is completely
restrained (in total contrast to the crash-and-burn
onscreen performance), his reading of De Sade
lacks the velvet villainy imparted by Christopher
Lee when handling similar duties in Franco's Eugenie...
The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1969).
Finally(!) we get to the main
story, and are introduced to two sisters being
educated at a convent. Dark-haired Justine (Romina
Power) is naively trusting and all wide-eyed,
virginal innocence, while her older blonde sibling,
Juliette (Maria Rohm), has a more cynical, mercenary
view of life's realities. The nuns inform them
that their mother just died; their father has
skipped the country to avoid debt collectors.
Left with only a modest sum between them, the
girls can no longer afford to continue their schooling
at the convent and are thus put out on the street.
Juliette, knowing the money can't last, wastes
no time making for a place of gainful employment:
a bordello. Justine flees the cathouse in disgust,
placing her trust (and her share of the money)
in the hands of a kindly friar who promises to
help her find lodgings. Directing her to the establishment
of a seedy landlord (Akim Tamiroff), the clergyman
immediately absconds with the funds, leaving Justine
a destitute indentured servant in thrall to the
innkeeper. Her only possession of value, the dress
she wears, is taken from her and sold on the street.
From here on out the movie
is an episodic account of poor Justine's trials
and travails at the unscrupulous hands of others,
occasionally switching gears to check in on her
sister Juliette (who becomes a murderous bisexual
whore) and the ennui-consumed De Sade in his cell.
(Yep... more blurry zoom shots of Klaus Kinski.)
Our heroine is falsely accused of theft, lands
in prison, then accompanies a tough criminal,
Madame DusBoise (Mercedes McCambridge), on a prison
break. Justine is almost raped by DusBoise's male
cohorts, but escapes from their clutches to find
a brief period of happiness with a gentlemanly
artist. The Law is still after her, though, so
she flees this temporary haven and winds up a
servant to the Marquise de Bressac (Sylva Koscina),
a rich-bitch aristocrat whose gay husband plots
to poison her. The scheming hubby succeeds in
offing his wife and inheriting her fortune; Justine
is marked to take the fall for the crime. Branded
a murderess (with a scarlet 'M' between her breasts),
the girl again wanders the countryside until she
finds sanctuary with The Brethren, monks who've
secluded themselves away from the world to meditate
and study. Hopes for a calm respite are dashed
when Brother Antonin (Palance), the leader of
the monks, reveals that their field of study is
no less than the pursuit of "the supreme pleasure."
stripped and imprisoned within the monastery,
subjected to various tortures and depredations
for the amusement of her hosts. But her body isn't
the only object of The Brethren's attention. By
positing that a life of virtue is rewarded only
with misery and pain while the wicked enjoy themselves
and profit from the misfortune of others (something
Justine has witnessed first hand a number of times),
they screw with her delicate young mind as well.
Satisfied as to her qualifications, Antonin selects
Justine for some kind of ritual sacrifice but
divine intervention in the form of a lightning
bolt frees her from the clutches of these debauched
'holy men.' (You'd think she'd be a tad resentful
at this point... Mon Dieu! Where have you been
until now?) Once again Justine finds herself
alone in the world, and she's not out of the woods
yet. Unfortunately, neither is the viewer.
from running about 30 minutes too long, Marquis
de Sade's Justine commits the cardinal
sin of being a sex film that's not very sexy.
of decadence we mostly get overwrought silliness.
There's nothing truly erotic
here; I was surprised at just how chaste it is
compared to other contemporary Franco fare. (Horn-dogs
are apt to be disappointed, hitting the Fast Forward
button at regular intervals.) 18-year old Romina
Power certainly fits the bill physically, with
her angelic face, long dark tresses and lithe,
coltish body, but as an actress she's a complete
block of wood. (Not a good thing considering she's
in 90% of the scenes... According to Franco, the
investors forced her on him. Besides, the tale
is supposed to have some allusions to the literary
this isn't Hollywood Hot
Tubs, after all.) As the world-wise Juliette,
sexy Maria Rohm isn't in the film enough to really
matter; her part is relatively small.
It's too bad, really, as Justine
represents the biggest budget Franco ever had
to work with. Elaborate period costumes and sets
show off a higher pedigree of production than
is usual with his films. It certainly features
his most impressive cast of 'name' actors, too,
with Kinski, Tamiroff, McCambridge, Koscina, the
always-welcome Howard Vernon (as a
creepy cohort of Antonin), Italian sex goddess
Rosalba Neri (Lady
Frankenstein), and former Hollywood A-Lister
Jack Palance all onboard. Unfortunately they're
either wasted in inconsequential parts (most notably
Kinski) or overact dreadfully. The chief offender
in the latter category is, as mentioned, Palance,
who was inebriated the entire time he was on set.
That he was blitzed could be viewed as an excuse
of sorts, but I'm not buying it. Even hard-drinkin'
Wendell Corey (Astro-Zombies)
was never this bad —
he just slurred his lines. Here Palance is completely
out of control, delivering his dialog with odd,
unnecessary inflections when he isn't bellowing
like a maniac at the top of his lungs. A lot of
veteran actors have 'phoned in' a role just to
pick up a quick check, of course, but Palance's
turn in Justine is
an entirely different thing altogether. It's simply
astonishing how terrible he is in this
movie... I was too embarrassed for him to even
completists will no doubt wish to add this film
to their collections, whatever its merits (or
lack thereof). As for neophytes, I strongly recommend
they stay clear. For significantly more satisfying
Franco-led tours through Sadean philosophy —
in terms of both the prurient and the aesthetic
I recommend Eugenie... The
Story of Her Journey Into Perversion and
de Sade (1970), starring Soledad Miranda.
Rest assured, neither of those films feature Jack
Palance making a complete ass of himself.
in tandem with Eugenie...
The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion,
Blue Underground's DVD edition of Justine
utilizes a nearly blemish-free widescreen (1.66:1)
transfer of the film, replete with amazing, eye-popping
colors. (The screenshots accompanying this review
will give you some idea of how colorful the film
truly is.) The only problem with it becomes evident
in a handful of scenes which are totally bathed
in blood-red light. Blacks in these sequences tend
to to exhibit a greenish glow, likely a defect in
the original source materials. Sound quality is
quite good; Nicolai's lush symphonic score is not
disserved by the digital mono mix. Extras
include the French theatrical trailer (subtitled
in English), a poster/still gallery, liner notes
by Tim Lucas, and a Talent Bio of director Franco.
The disc's piece de resistance is the 20-minute
documentary The Perils and Pleasures of Justine,
yet another excellent featurette courtesy of Blue
Underground. Franco (speaking subtitled French)
and producer Harry Alan Towers are interviewed,
their often amusing anecdotes interspersed with
snippets from the film.
The septuagenarian Franco is particularly feisty
his fans won't want to miss it.