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 late ‘60s/early ‘70s were arguably the peak of Franco’s career, at least in terms of his erotic output, which took a particularly surrealistic turn as censorship rules loosened throughout Europe. Released back-to-back-to-back with the more seminal Harry Alan Towers productions Venus in Furs (1969) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), Marquis de Sade’s Justine (Italian: Justine ovvero le disavventure della virtù; aka: Deadly Sanctuary and Justine and Juliet, 1968) was one of Franco’s bigger international hits, thanks in large part to appearances from international stars Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge, Horst Frank, and Klaus Kinski, alongside Franco regulars Maria Rohm and Rosalba Neri. At 124 minutes, Marquis de Sade’s Justine is awfully long for a softcore sexploitation flick – it might even be 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). The length can be a challenge, as Franco often falls into what would soon become his most tedious instincts, but the extra time also gives the director a chance to flaunt his aggressive artistic abilities, while still maintaining the epic scope of the story. I imagine, for example, that a shorter film would cut the feverishly stylistic framing device in which Kinski portrays an imprisoned Marquis, who narrates the story between hallucinations.
The bigger problem is Romina Power’s dull central performance – a shortcoming that was well known to Franco, who reportedly made changes to the script when he discovered a producer was forcing him to use the first-time actress (and underaged daughter of swashbuckling superstar Tyrone Power). Many of Franco’s erotic and exploitation movies are only as good as their lead actress. Maria Rohm, Janine Reynaud, and, of course, Soledad Miranda all managed to pull some of his weakest efforts out of a pit of mediocrity through sheer force of charisma, while Power manages to drag an otherwise visually and thematically strong production down into mediocrity. Even the all-star supporting cast often struggles against her charm vacuum. The saving grace is that her vapid quality sort of fits Franco’s illusory tone, as if she is playing an unwilling audience surrogate who has wandered into his elaborate and perverse stage-play.
I should verify – for my records as much as for readers – that it is very easy to confuse Marquis de Sade’s Justine with Claude Pierson’s (superior) Justine de Sade (1972), which was released by Blue Underground on remastered DVD in 2007. In fact, if you look the two films up on imdb.com, you’ll see that the poster to Pierson’s picture is misattributed to both. Brief research reveals that the Marquis’ story was also adapted in 1969 by George Cukor (including uncredited input from Joseph Strick) as Justine and in 1977 by German filmmaker Chris Boger as Cruel Passion (aka: Marquis de Sade’s Justine).
Marquis de Sade’s Justine was previously released by Blue Underground on anamorphic 1.66:1 DVD (that same transfer was re-released by Anchor Bay in the UK). Their new Blu-ray sports a 4K remaster was scanned from the uncensored camera negative. The results are a delicate and ultra-clean 1.66:1, 1080p HD transfer that should please most Franco fans (Franco-philes?). By this time, Franco and cinematographer Manuel Merino had started experimenting with the kind of extreme focus and weird compositions they’d later perfect for Vampyros Lesbos (1971), which makes Marquis de Sade’s Justine a particularly soft looking movie. Color quality is extremely vivid, alternating between the relatively naturalistic hues seen on outdoor sets and the abstract, hyper-colorful hues seen during interiors. The colors and complex textured are supported by deep, yet delicate blacks, which show a wide range of gradient balance. My only caveat is that it seems that the disc’s producers couldn’t help themselves and have applied a shade too much DNR, likely in an effort to cut down on some of the film grain. On the other hand, Franco and Merino pull focus so often that the occasionally blobby quality is inherent in the material. I also have to admit that these semi-smudgy details really aren’t noticeable when the film is in motion.
The original mono English soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Franco-philes may be upset that there are no alternate language audio tracks, but I assume that the English dub – and all language tracks were dubbed, because a lot of the film appears to have been shot without sound – was the director’s preferred version. Besides, the majority of the cast is clearly speaking English, though not always with their own voices (nice accents, though). The track is plenty clean and crisp, however, the fact that so much of the audio was added in post means that the basic volume levels and fidelity are pretty low. The score is supplied by repeat Ennio Morricone collaborator Bruno Nicolai, who was coming off a number of Italian westerns and thrillers at the time. It is spectacularly baroque and adds substantial intrigue to the dialogue-free melodrama.
The Perils And Pleasures Of Justine (20:00, SD) – This legacy featurette, which appeared on BU’s DVD, 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, of course, substantial censorship issues. Franco also takes some time to complain about his actors (Power was a dope, Palance was completely drunk, et cetera), which is always amusing.
Stephen Thrower on Justine (17:30, HD) – A new interview with the always knowledgeable and amiable author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesus Franco (Strange Attractor Press, 2015). 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 their numerous shortcomings. During this educational featurette, he also runs down the differences between De Sade’s book and the final film.
Poster & still gallery
Bonus CD featuring the Marquis de Sade’s Justine original motion picture soundtrack