Marquis de Sade’s Justine 4K UHD Review
Blu-ray Release: February 21, 2023
Video: 1.66:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Run Time: 124:10 (International Cut), 95:41 (US Deadly Sanctuary Cut)
Director: Jess Franco
Note: The film section of this review was written in tandem with the review of Blue Underground’s same day release of Eugenie…The Story of Her Journey into Perversion and there is overlap between them.
A nubile young virgin named Justine (Romina Power) is cast out of a French orphanage and thrust into a depraved world of prostitution, predatory lesbians, a fugitive murderess (Mercedes McCambridge), bondage, branding, and one supremely sadistic monk (Jack Palance). It’s a twisted tale of strange desires, perverse pleasures, and the ultimate corruption of innocence as told by the Marquis de Sade. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
The period between 1969 and 1973 was arguably the peak of Jesús ‘Jess’ Franco’s 200+ film career, at least in terms of his erotic output, which took a particularly surrealistic turn, just as censorship rules were loosening throughout Europe. Personally, I prefer the period just before this, when he was making poppy, black & white horror, noir, and sci-fi movies, but I can’t exactly disagree with the fans and critics that mark his work with British producer Harry Alan Towers as his most important, at least in terms of recognizability. Released back-to-back-to-back with his more seminal Towers collaborations – 99 Women (German: Der heiße Tod; French: Les Brulantes, 1969), The Girl from Rio (German: Die sieben Männer der Sumuru, 1969), and Venus in Furs (Italian: Paroxismus - Può una morta rivivere per amore?; German: Schwarzer Engel, 1969), for example – Marquis de Sade’s Justine (Italian: Justine ovvero le disavventure della virtùre; released on US video as Deadly Sanctuary and aka Justine and Juliet, 1969) was one of Franco’s bigger international hits, thanks in part to the stature of its international cast, including Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge, Horst Frank, and Klaus Kinski, alongside Franco regulars Maria Rohm (who was Towers’ wife) and Rosalba Neri.
At 124 minutes, Marquis de Sade’s Justine is also possibly the longest movie Franco ever made (I don’t have the patience to check the runtimes of 203 movies, so I welcome corrections from readers) and, at the very least, awfully long for a softcore sexploitation flick, even a moderately budgeted and baroque one with so many name stars. The length can be onerous, especially when Franco defaults to his most tedious instincts, but the extra time also gives the director a chance to flaunt his most aggressive artistic abilities in episodic little spurts, while still maintaining the epic scope of the story. For instance, I imagine a shorter film wouldn’t have room for the feverishly stylistic framing device, in which a manic Klaus Kinski portrays the imprisoned Marquis, who narrates the story between hallucinations (thus giving Kinski a role that didn’t require him to memorize any lines was probably a cost effective way of working around his infamous on-set aggression). Given the utter cheapness of a lot of his post-Towers work, the ambitious scope and, in turn, incredible length, is probably a welcome change for Franco’s most ardent fans. On the other hand, the 124-minute cut likely alienates most non-fans and detractors, who haven’t developed a patience for the director’s listless idiosyncrasies.
The film’s other issue, aside from its length, is poor Romina Power’s very awkward central performance. Reportedly, Franco learned that one of the American producers was going to force him to use the late Tyrone Power’s youngest daughter and needed to change the script to match her lack of skill and experience. He had wanted Palestinian-born, Italian starlet Rosemary Dexter for the role, but had to shuffle her into a supporting role. Franco’s erotic movies are often only as good as their lead actress. Maria Rohm, Janine Reynaud, and especially Soledad Miranda all have the pure charisma to pull some of his weakest efforts out of mediocrity, but, even with the role altered to fit her limitations, Power isn’t up to the task. Still, it’s hard to blame her, since she was only sixteen when filming began and is thrown from one demeaning situation to another, surrounded by full-grown adult men (thank God Kinski never shared the set with her). And it doesn’t help that her director resented her presence. If one can overlook the iffy morals of the situation (she can often be seen fighting back laughter, so, hopefully, she had some fun), Power’s inability to match the timbre of her co-stars sort of fits the film’s themes and Franco’s illusory tone, as if she unwittingly wandered on stage during an elaborate Grand Guignol play.
I should verify – for my records as much as for readers’ piece of mind – that it is very easy to confuse Marquis de Sade’s Justine with Claude Pierson’s Justine de Sade (1972), a more faithful adaptation of Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (French: Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu, pub: 1791) which was released by Blue Underground on DVD in 2007 (it is also the superior of the two films and I hope Blue Underground upgrades it to 4K as well). The Marquis’ novel was also adapted in 1973 by Tatsumi Kumashiro from Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno series as Woman Hell: Woods are Wet (Japanese: Onna Jigoku: Mori wa Nureta) and in 1977 by German filmmaker Chris Boger as Cruel Passion (aka: Justine). Franco’s film was also released the same year (1969) as George Cukor and Joseph Strick’s Justine, but that film was based on Lawrence Durrell’s 1957 novel of the same name.
Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco edited by Lucas Balbo and Peter Blumenstock (Gruf Haufen & Frank Trebbin, 1993)
Bizarre Sinema: Jess Franco El Sexo del Horror by Carlos Aguilar (Glittering Images, no copyright date)
A 93-minute edit of Marquis de Sade’s Justine was released on US VHS by Monterey Home Video as Deadly Sanctuary, who claimed that it had been banned in Europe. Blue Underground’s first release was an uncut 2002 DVD that stayed in print until the company reissued it as a collector’s edition remastered Blu-ray. This 4K UHD/Blu-ray combo pack features yet another remaster, restored in 4K from the uncensored original camera negative. The previous HD disc looked so good that I initially assumed this UHD featured a 2160p version of the earlier transfer with a Dolby Vision HDR make-over. But then I put the new Blu-ray in the computer’s drive to compare and could see that, even minus the extra resolution and HDR, this truly is a new and better restoration. The resolution and HDR (HDR10/Dolby Vision) are the main reasons for fans to rebuy the film, obviously, and I wish I had the ability to take accurate screen caps from a UHD to demonstrate the improvements. I’ve still included a couple of comparison sliders (new master on the left, original BD on the right) in order to illustrate the differences in color temperature, detail, and texture. Colors are more saturated and warmed up, but not to the point of bleeding or overwhelming neutral hues. Franco and cinematographer Manuel Merino use a lot of shallow focus and oddball compositions and the new transfer handles the softened edges/textures a bit better, including tighter film grain. Black levels are comparable on both discs.
Marquis de Sade’s Justine is presented in its original mono English and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Given the number of international stars, Franco’s Spanish lineage, Towers’ British heritage, the mixed German and Italian production, and fact that the film takes place in Paris, I’m sure there were at least a half dozen different language dubs, but the film was shot in English and a lot of the cast dubbed their own performances (usually in their given accent, which is a nice touch), so I’m not bothered by the lack of additional options. Performance and dub quality is uneven, depending on the performer, but this is the fault of the original mix, not the UHD (or Blu-ray), and the track is clean overall, including a buzz-free soundfloor and decent dynamic range at high volume. The score is supplied by Ennio Morricone collaborator Bruno Nicolai, who also composed for 99 Women the same year. It is a spectacularly dramatic orchestral affair that really springs to life during the dialogue-free scenes of Kinski writhing around his jail cell.
Disc One (4K UHD)
Commentary by film historians Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth – A brand new commentary from the power-duo that is Mondo Digital’s Thompson and So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015) author Howarth. They discuss the various edits of the film, Franco’s career, sticking mostly to the Towers era, the Marquis’ work and other adaptations from the time period, the story’s themes, differences between Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue and Towers’ script, and, of course, the larger careers of the cast & crew.
Disc Two (Blu-ray)
Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth commentary (international cut only)
Deadly Sanctuary (95:41, HD) – A full HD version of the much shorter US cut of the film, I believe last seen on VHS tape.
The Perils And Pleasures Of Justine (19:58, SD) – This legacy featurette, which appeared on Blue Underground’s original DVD and 2015 Blu-ray, features interviews with Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers, who discuss their working relationship and the film’s production. It was the most expensive and complex film the duo made and there were substantial censorship issues. True to form, Franco also takes some time to complain about his actors (Power was an idiot, Palance was completely drunk, et cetera), while Towers recalls some anecdotes about Kinski.
Stephen Thrower on Justine (17:32, HD) – The always knowledgeable and amiable author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco (Strange Attractor Press, 2015) recorded this interview for the 2015 BD. Thrower isn’t only a top source on all things Franco, but he’s the type of critic that can make the reader/viewer appreciate the unusual touches that make the director’s films so interesting, despite acknowledging their numerous shortcomings. During this educational featurette, he also runs down the differences between De Sade’s book and the final film.
On Set with Jess (8:17, HD) – In the only other 2023-exclusive extra, actress Rosalba Neri remembers working with Franco, McCambridge, and Rohm on 99 Women and Marquis de Sade’s Justine.
Poster & still gallery
The images on this page are taken from the BD (not the 4K UHD) and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.