Thursday, February 23, 2012

Marquis de Sade's "Justine" (1968)

... aka: Deadly Sanctuary
... aka: Justine
... aka: Justine and Juliette
... aka: Marquis de Sade: Justine

Directed by:
Jesus Franco

Just as its nubile protagonist deals with her own 'misfortunes of virtue,' director Franco also met similar misfortunes on the set of this Marquis de Sade adaptation; his first of many attempts at bringing the controversial author's work to life. For starters, Franco's preferred choice to play Justine (Rosemary Dexter) was overturned by the producers. Instead, he had inexperienced 17-year-old Romina Power, the daughter of ill-fated Hollywood star Tyrone Power, imposed upon him at the last minute while Dexter was relegated to a minor supporting role. While Powers' wooden performance (the director would later compare her to a piece of furniture in interviews) certainly doesn't help matters as she's unable to either elicit much sympathy for Justine nor bring any real dimensions to the role, in this context she doesn't actually do that much damage. The character is supposed to be clueless and extremely naive, and there's a certain earnestness to Power's amateurism that is actually far less offensive than several of the big name, scenery-chewing guest stars who later show up in the film. However, Franco would blame the casting change for the backers' insistence that he tone down the material, though that might actually have more to do with censors snooping around on the set and shutting down the production several times before it was completed than Powers being added to the cast.

Despite all of the above issues, and despite the fact that this is far from his best work, the film would go on to become one of Franco's best-known and most-viewed efforts, likely because of the cast and the production values. Franco had a much higher budget here than in any of his other films, and this is evident in the cinematography, costumes, art direction and location work (all about on par with any big budget studio film of the time), as well as the large amount of extras during some scenes.

Set in France in the 18th Century, things begin with a delirious flurry of images as de Sade himself (Klaus Kinski) is carted off to prison where, in an imaginatively presented series of fades, blurs, zooms and jerky camera movements, he begins to write the story we are about to see.

Because their parents have fled the country, virtuous and virginal Justine and her wicked sister Juliette (Maria Rohm), polar opposites in both look and demeanor as the narrator informs us, are given a small pension and are kicked out of their convent home. Juliette immediately heads to a brothel and tells Justine that if she doesn't like it, she'll have to go elsewhere. Justine wanders off, encounters a priest who steals her money and then ends up at the home of miserly weirdo Mr. Du Harpin (Akim Tamiroff), who spies on her changing clothes, sells her dress and has her working as his maid dressed in rags. Du Harpin's neighbor Desroches (Gustavo Re) unsuccessfully comes on to our heroine and after his advances are rebuked he frames Justine for stealing a broche and has her arrested. She's given the death sentence, is taken to prison and ends up meeting teeth-grinding murderess Madame Dusbois (Mercedes McCambridge) who decides to enlist Justine's aid in escaping. The two ladies manage to get out of there with help from four of Dusbois' henchmen, but like in most of Justine's other nihilistic misadventures, things end in another attempted rape.

Justine flees from them and ends up at the home of kind artist Raymond (Harald Leipnitz). Because of how she's been treated by everyone she'd encountered thus far in her travels, Justine is wary of Raymond and what his intentions may be despite his compassion. Before the relationship can develop any further, the authorities show up looking for her and she's forced to run off yet again. She then encounters the decadent Marquis de Bressac (Horst Frank), who is having a rendezvous with a male lover in the woods when she first bumps into him. He agrees to hire her as a maid in exchange for something he's not quite ready to reveal. That something turns out to be poisoning his wife (Sylva Koscina), who's grown close to Justine the few months she's been employed there. Justine warns her about the husband's intentions, but he finds out about it, kills her instead, frames Justine for the murder and then brands an "M" on her chest before sending her on her merry way. Justine then ends up at a monastery of 'pleasure-in-pain' freaks headed over by a grotesquely overacting Jack Palance, whom Franco claimed was drunk the entire shoot. (Not surprising when you get to see his bizarre performance!) Barely making it out of there alive, a weak and injured Justine ends up back in the city, where she's re-captured by Madame Dusbois and her gang, who force her to exhibit herself naked in front of a leering crowd.

Every once in awhile, the film cuts away from Justine back to the brooding de Sade writing away or to her sister Juliette, who's busy indulging in a sinful - though even emptier - life. Juliette and her lover, fellow prostitute Claudine (this is the role Baxter ended up with), murder the whorehouse madam and one of her tricks, raid her safe and take off on a thieving / murder spree, for which the two become wealthy. After Juliette murders her partner in crime, she ends up settling down with a wealthy nobleman (GĂ©rard Tichy) and finally crosses paths with her sister again during the last few minutes.

Because of the highly variable acting and writing (producer Harry Alan Towers also scripted as "Peter Welbeck"), the film is dramatically uneven throughout, with some ill-fitting attempts at broad comedy along the way, but it has its moments. Despite a run time in excess of two hours (the original U.S. video release titled Deadly Sanctuary was trimmed of about 30 minutes), the film stays so busy there's no real time to be bored. The material is colorfully presented by cinematographer Manuel Merino and it also boasts a truly beautiful score from Bruno Nicolai. As per the director's usual, he's filled the film with many beautiful, naked women, including Rosalba Neri (who'd also appear in Franco's women-in-prison opus 99 WOMEN). Howard Vernon (as one of the monks) also appears briefly.

Still, I'd be amiss not to point out that several of Franco's other de Sade adaptations; EUGENIE... THE STORY OF HER JOURNEY INTO PERVERSION (1969) and EUGENIE DE SADE (1970; released 1974) - though much lower-budgeted - pack more of a wallop. They're also much more in tune with the dark tone of de Sade's writings than this one. However, this film does drive home the real point of de Sade's source novel: How can a just higher power allow someone good and virtuous to suffer while simultaneously allowing the wicked to prosper?


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