Justine or, The Misfortunes of Virtue was one of the two sister novels that resulted in the Marquis de Sade’s imprisonment under Napoleon, though as least a few of the book’s multiple versions contain a plea on behalf of standard moral purity, however unconvincing and tacked-on it was. Make that strapped on, since the novel and French director Claude Person’s 1972 adaptation otherwise finds its title heroine—a vacuous bimbette only concerned with preserving the sanctity of her virginal vaginal orifice—stumbling from one countryside chateau to the next, seeking respite from the threat of carnal calling cards. No sooner does she begin explaining “I am but a poor orphan girl already acquainted with ill fortune” then each of her bug-eyed, lip-smacking male charges are loosening the well-worn drawstrings of her corset. If the blows of de Sade’s most shocking libertine impulses were occasionally softened by the florid prolixity of his prose, so too does Pierson’s film gild the lily by filming some surprisingly hardcore deeds (communion wafers up the arse and such) in a totally softcore manner. I mean, everyone knows de Sade was an ass man, but this version of Justine is almost devoid of bush. The hair on the asses of various candy boys is more prominent, all told. Also prominent is de Sade’s true moral imperative: It’s not Justine’s yielding vag lips that are most in danger of inviting immorality but her unyielding air of self-denial. Late in her po-faced sexcapades, she meets a man, as Justine later admits, whose “part that differentiated him from those of our sex was of such length and exorbitant circumference, that not only had I never looked upon an object that was comparable to it in its every measure, but I can claim I’m absolutely certain that Dame Nature never had fashioned one quite so prodigious.” Because in de Sade’s world, girth in cockitude is tantamount to girth in intelligence, it is this horse-hung slave-driver who clearly has Justine’s number when he accuses her pretense of virginal purity of giving her as illicit a thrill as simply taking it up the chuff also would. Small comfort to the Andrea Dworkins of the grindhouse cult, no doubt, but I can’t help but approve of a movie that introduces the most darkly handsome member of its cast getting plugged by his male companion and later explaining to Justine, “The sensations produce delirium, the titillations so voluptuous, so piquant that one goes out of one’s mind. You mustn’t believe that we are made the same as other men; the structure is entirely different. And that membrane that is so sensitive and lines your temple of Venus is the same which ornaments the altar at which our Celadons sacrifice. In that place, we are women as absolutely as you are in the sanctuary of procreation.” Too bad the movie, like Justine’s earlier description of their sodomous tryst, makes one “regret it was not yet more terrible.”
For a soft-pedaled adaptation comes a soft-focused transfer. I'm not sure whether it was filmed through Vaseline or whether the guy behind the telecine cummed up the works, but it's got a notably gauzy look. In either its original French or English-dubbed (with occasional French for restored material cut from its domestic release for being not too saucy but rather too boring) options the sound is as muffled as a baby-talking pillow biter.
Stingy, considering its high price point. There are only a small collection of deleted and alternate scenes (none of which are much longer than a minute) and the English and French trailers.
As far as watered-down de Sade goes, Justine de Sade is at least preferable to Quills.