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Enfant terrible of European exploitation movies masquerading as offbeat art house output, Jess Franco is a name notoriously synonymous with excess. The second collaboration with British writer/producer Harry Alan Towers, who had a history of funding European directors with American money, Justine marked the first time that Franco had tackled the sensitive (even for him) subject of de Sade, that most infamous of erotic novelists who scandalised revolution-era France with Philosophy Of The Boudoir.

Franco later made an adaptation of this book, retitled Eugenie, as a de Sade companion piece. However, even after the impact of Eurotika like Succubus it was Justine that put Franco on the map and, backed by a 1 million dollar budget the likes of which he’d never seen before nor was to see again, gave him full licence to explore the shifting sands of erotic cinema.

The Marquis de Sade (Klaus Kinski) is imprisoned for the safety of the literate classes in France after writing a litany of works banned for decadence and depravity. Once in the cloying confines of his cell, de Sade is menaced by visions of bleeding nymphomaniacs which, in his heightened emotional state, cause him to contemplate the nature of virtue and explore its relationship with vice and the pursuit of earthly pleasure. So de Sade scribes the opening of The Misfortunes of Virtue, (or Les Infortunes De La Virtu to use its proper French title), henceforth to be known as the tale of Justine...

The literary genius contemplates life in chokey...
18 year old Justine (Romina Power) and her elder sister Juliette (Maria Rohm) live happily in the safe seclusion of a Parisian convent in the later 18th century. With their father forced to flee France in the face of political persecution by revolutionary zealots, the two young women are cast out of the convent and have to make their own way among the winding streets of the capital.

Juliette, easily the more worldly wise of the two with a glint in her eye that suggests a wicked streak a mile long, submits that the pair retire to a house of ill-repute where they may service the rich residents of the city in order to safeguard the material aspects of their future. Justine, on the other hand, is a maiden of such virtue as for whom even the idea is abhorrent and so she strikes out on her own.

Rapidly relieved of the whole 100 crown small fortune that her father left her by a conniving clergyman who effortlessly exploited the young girl’s naïve nature, Justine seeks employment with a lecherous old landlord. Evading his untoward advances, Justine is falsely accused of theft by one of the landlord’s tenants. Eluding arrest, so begins a series of amusing, erotic and unpleasant adventures involving an escaped murderess, high society homicide, an unfortunate branding incident, a lot of bondage and a monk (Jack Palance) in the mouth of hedonistic madness.

Literary adaptations are never an easy trick to pull off and successfully trying to capture the essence of de Sade without creating an abhorring audience racing each other down the aisles to the auditorium’s exit is definitely more difficult than most. In this respect, producer Harry Alan Towers, who wrote the script, has achieved a remarkable feat in exploring many of the themes that permeate de Sade’s oeuvre. That said, no movie can ever encompass the sheer weight of material devoted to sadism and sexual perversion and as such Justine feels episodic as the titular heroine is bounced from one particular proclivity to another, skimming the surface of each before being shunted into the succeeding sequence.

Rather than a cohesive whole, the film is more a string of set pieces with each fused to the next by a chase sequence involving Justine fleeing persecution of one sordid sort or another and fails to build to a big climax (if you’ll excuse the pun) at the end. In concentrating more heavily on the younger of the sisters, the narrative doesn’t adequately establish the dichotomy of the two girls’ existence and when the pair are finally reunited, so clumsy is the closing dialogue that it seems Towers was unsure quite how to bring proceedings to a close with some sense of subtlety. Such a set-up can, and does, work on the page but on screen it feels a little forced and leaves the actors very little time to make an impression.

We'll have no 'popping the cherry' gags here!
Just how much Jess Franco is responsible for the acting on show remains questionable. With some crude characterisation of perfunctory players that verges on later Carry On like levels, the older campaigners’ contributions come to the rescue. Klaus Kinski, having proven over the years that can he turn in astounding performances when properly ‘motivated’ (as any collaboration with Werner Herzog has demonstrated), is electrifying as the incarcerated author. Always riveting, without ever uttering a single word on screen, Kinski’s effort should be required viewing for acting apprentices.

Maria Rohm is devastating in and out of her clothes as the duplicitous elder sibling, despite being a bit shortchanged by the script (especially at the unfortunately clunky denouement). Mercedes McCambridge excels as the fugitive gang leader; now you’ll be able to put a face to that terrifying Exorcist voice although on second thoughts maybe you’ll wish you hadn’t! Jack Palance is marvellously memorable as the monk tormented by his inescapable pursuit of pleasure, quite apparently several sheets to the wind in some scenes, and puts even Horst Frank's outrageous appearance as an effetely murderous homosexual aristocrat to shame.

All of which is unhinged by the atrocious addition of Romina Power as the central character. Despite being terribly adept at keeping a straight face in every instance of depressing degradation, the proverbial wet paper bag doubtless remained resolutely inescapable in the face of her quite awful acting. Franco has argued long and hard ever since that the inclusion of Tyrone Power’s adolescent offspring at the insistence of the American moneymen (the equation obviously being no Power = no film), unsettled his artistic vision and it’s easy to see why.

In which case, perhaps the accusations of Franco’s misogyny that have dogged him throughout his career are, in this instance, despite all his protestations not unfounded. The work of de Sade unquestionably objectifies women, after all that was the author’s raison d’être in the book of balancing the progress of the life of each sister; after all, virtue cannot exist without vice. However, Franco, even with some instances of tastefully setting his camera slightly out of focus, over emphasises the humiliation of Justine and underplays the extent of her virtue. Curiously, at the critical moment where Justine learns to appreciate that she actually enjoys the ritual debasement that afflicts her and finally understands what it is to be virtuous above all, Franco truncates the scene and hurries into the final chase sequence.

Even the virtuous aren't averse to the old cloak and dagger routine...
In short, perhaps the changing of the book’s title in its’ translation to the screen is most significant. Rather than a literal interpretation as The Misfortunes Of Virtue, Justine is much more focused on the demeaning of a single female human being with plenty of unnecessary nudity to flesh out the narrative (so to speak). Allied to the fact that the fresh faced Power was just 18 at the time of production, with clearly not much idea of what was going on, and the film cuts pretty close to the knuckle.

It may have been relatively cheap to make at the time but Anchor Bay’s restoration job on this 30 year old print, which includes as much as 20 minutes of previously excised footage, is nothing short of excellent. Colours are vibrant, coping with the extensive oversaturated palette of reds and blues with very little grain and no sign of bleeding or blooming. Likewise, contrast levels and shadow detail enhance every aspect of Franco’s interesting use of Gaudi architecture and intriguing set design, particularly in the very dark scenes with de Sade pacing about in his cell. With a transfer like this, it should be questioned as to why all modern prints don’t look this good.

Now for the bad news. At certain key moments there are significant occurrences of print damage. On the evidence of the rest of the transfer, these instances seem limited to passages which hit the cutting room floor when the film was hacked up by the American producers for their domestic market. Ranging from the odd white speck here and there to prevalent grain to a couple of ugly scratches, these crop up at crucial moments of a sexual nature or during the slower paced exposition scenes. It would be terribly harsh to criticise Anchor Bay for these blemishes as it would seem that no other examples of the original footage remain in order to be true to the director’s vision but it is distracting nonetheless.

A single mono English soundtrack is provided and for the film this is perfectly adequate with the wobbly dubbed dialogue perfectly distinct in among the other audio effects. If at all possible it would have been beneficial to give Bruno Nicolai’s beautifully layered score, which turns on the bombast at key points, rather more room to breathe. Thankfully these are restricted to the dialogue free moments with de Sade in his cell but it gets a bit overpowering all the same.

No, that's not a man. It's Mercedes McCambridge!
In the absence of a commentary, The Perils And Pleasures Of Justine composes the bulk of the special features selection. Running at 20 minutes, this feature intercuts interviews conducted with Jess Franco and Harry Alan Towers with footage from the film. A couple of interesting nuggets of information can be gleaned here, such as how a regular shooting schedule of 4 months was compacted into 7 weeks with a Spanish/Italian/French crew or how until the last minutes Orson Welles was signed up to play de Sade(!). In addition the director’s phlegmatic contribution is a timely reminder of the travails in trying to shoot such an extreme movie in a Spain still under the totalitarian thumb of fascist General Franco and has a direct bearing on his loathing for censors and blinkered censorship.

Rather less impressive is that the Liner Notes from Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas seem to have been struck directly from the above interviews. What initially appears to be a thoroughly researched introduction to the film is rapidly revealed to have cut and pasted verbatim much of the interviews you’ll have just watched.

Nonetheless a Jess Franco Text Biography is also included which is impressive in exploring how the director’s personal foibles influence his unique approach to making movies and the content of his work.

Next up comes a Poster And Stills Gallery. There are some off screen shots to be shown here along with some perplexing publicity stills but the content does feature its fair share of photographs cribbed straight from the movie itself.

Last but by no means least comes a French Theatrical Trailer to finish off the extras selection. Unimaginable as promotional material in Britain, the French cinemagoers were treated to a spoiler free trailer filled with wanton nudity, an overplayed connection to de Sade and absolutely no hint of what the film’s plot may involve. Perhaps this was to preserve an air of mystique regarding the full feature, indeed certain elements only make sense once you’ve seen the movie, and it’s engrossing to note how the French version retains the book’s original title.

All of the above are accessed by a slick animated menu system which shows clips of the film with looped excerpts of the score as interstitials.

Throwing down the gauntlet to stay on the straight and narrow...
Given the age of the print and the availability of the original audio materials, it’s another technically outstanding disc from Anchor Bay who should also be saluted for hauling Franco out of obscurity to contribute to this release. Although the visual presentation is marred slightly, Justine is an excellent entry point to the works of de Sade.

At points it can be lewd, crude and (for the women involved) horrifyingly humiliating. Yet despite and perhaps because of this, Justine remains the most faithful filmed adaptation of any de Sade material and for that Jess Franco, for all his faults (and though I hate to admit it), has to be applauded. Whether a feminist viewer is liable to agree is open to question but this film, along with companion piece Eugenie, is worth a watch on the strength that the far-sighted French author still has the power in his pen to shock even the most modern audience...