Marquis de Sade’s Justine (a.k.a. Cruel Passion) transplants a significantly truncated version of de Sade’s novel to British soil, more or less preserving the source material’s attacks on institutional and individual hypocrisy, while at the same time sanitizing its depictions of perverse sexuality. Justine never gets much kinkier than some briefly glimpsed nun-on-nun writhing and a couple of cursory whippings. On the sliding scale of Sadean cinema, Justine therefore falls somewhere between the angry political invective of Pasolini’s Salò or Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade and the titillation factor of Jesús Franco’s numerous softcore adaptations. Give it points, though, for taking de Sade’s ideas seriously, and daring to present a relentlessly downbeat vision of moral corruption.
Justine opens with all the trappings of classic ‘70s nunsploitation: an insular, cloistered setting, all the better to foster a hothouse atmosphere of religious and sexual repression; the harsh Mother Superior whose habit hides a lustful heart; nubile novices eager to seek erotic instruction in each other’s arms. Highlighting the generic resemblance to Ken Russell’s trendsetting The Devils, the filmmakers even throw in a couple of feverish hallucinations. Newly orphaned sisters Justine (Koo Stark) and Juliette (Lydia Lisle) attend the funeral of their parents, buried beyond the bounds of the convent—and therefore in unhallowed ground—because their father committed suicide. Thus commences the film’s dialectic of vice and virtue. (Novel and film carry the subtitle The Misfortunes of Virtue.) As the older, worldlier Juliette puts it, “All the holy sisters have taught me is how to frig myself.” That night, the girls begin the next phase of their perverse pedagogy: Wanton Juliette submits to a nun’s embraces, while ever-innocent Justine resists the Mother Superior’s advances. Unlike de Sade’s novel, Justine allows for a more generous sisterly bond: Juliette rushes to Justine’s rescue, with the result that the girls are cast out into the cold, cruel world, but not before some well-deployed blackmail wins them their patrimony.
The siblings make their way by carriage to London, where Juliette has elected to pursue a career in whoring. In their travels, the girls encounter Lord Carlisle (Martin Potter), a handsome rogue who encourages Juliette’s licentiousness, while keeping one eye on Justine’s cherry. Hitting the road, Justine moves into patchily paced picaresque, a randy romp along the lines of Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, what with all the carriages, cutthroats, and bawdy bordellos. Some of it works, but much of it falls flat. Scenes set in Madame Laronde’s (Katharine Kath) “establishment,” in particular, bog the film down with ill-advised attempts at broad comedy. The worst offender is Juliette’s seemingly endless initiation into the fine art of coquetry at the hands of resident stud George (Barry McGinn), a chortling, mentally challenged oaf. Endless chatter violates the prime directive of good filmmaking: show, don’t tell. Then again, maybe it’s that famously buttoned-down British reserve that keeps anything other than upper lips from getting stiff.
While Juliette makes herself comfortable amid the rococo décor of the whorehouse, stubbornly virginal Justine escapes back home, seeking support from the local pastor. The film’s midsection develops the contrast between Juliette’s upward mobility, going from working girl to Carlisle’s fulltime mistress, with Justine’s downward spiral. Fleeing predatory Parson John (Louis Ife), Justine falls prey to a band of highwaymen led by the malevolently maternal Mrs. Bonny (Hope Jackman). Justine must choose between a life of crime—not to mention sexual servitude—and sudden death. The scene where Justine first comes across the brigands (they’ve just dug up, and are in the middle of plundering, her parents’ corpses) signals a sudden shift in tone from cautionary (even a bit satirical) to something far more grim.
Justine‘s third act dishes out a surfeit of surprisingly graphic violence. For example, the thieves waylay a carriage, viciously murder its occupants (including a young boy), and one of them even takes time out to have his way with a fresh cadaver. From this point until its harsh, unexpectedly brutal ending, Justine begs comparison with a strain of British cinema epitomized by the likes of Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General and Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil—films that hope to work as antidotes to your typical costume drama, wallowing not in the conspicuous consumption of lavish sets and sumptuous costumes, but rather in the pestilence-stricken dung heaps of history. Uneven in tone, unsteady in narrative construction, Justine nevertheless hammers home its uncompromising ethical viewpoint. In this world, virtue doesn’t merely fall victim to misfortune, it’s completely annihilated.
Justine marks the feature-film debut of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who went on to lens just about everything the Coen brothers have done since Barton Fink. Despite the film's middling budget, Deakins does an admirable job filling the frame with striking imagery. Nighttime scenes are wont to be mist-laden and mysterious, and Deakins captures some surprisingly lovely forest scenes, golden sunlight sifting through the foliage as in a Gainsborough painting. Justine's dreams and hallucinations are obvious standouts for their startling, surreal intensity. Kino's 1080p/AVC transfer looks solid despite a good many flecks and splotches evident in the original negative. Colors are steady and solidly saturated, if not intensely vibrant, while black levels are dense and uncrushed. The LPCM mono soundtrack is slightly less solid, prone to some hiss and muffled dialogue, but otherwise quite listenable. The score throws in some swelling, lilting Wagnerian strains for good measure.
Carried over from Redemption's DVD release, the main extras here are a short interview with director Chris Boger and a longer one with screenwriter Ian Cullen. Boger relates how impressed he was seeing the film again after many years, how wonderful everybody was to work with, and explains his early affection for the Marquis de Sade, claiming to have first read his works at the ripe old age of 10. (Of course, Boger's Scandinavian, so maybe…) Boger briefly touches on his later career as a music-video director, including shooting concert footage for Led Zeppelin. Cullen, a longtime TV actor, discusses making the transition to screenwriter (via BBC Radio and TV scripts, as it turns out), and how his acting career endowed him with an innate feel for dramatic structure. Cullen also talks about the film's financing (adequate) and critical reception (unkind), and admits his prior lack of familiarity with de Sade's work. The most intriguing part of the interview, however, covers Cullen's subsequent retreat to the ideological right. He puts the film's excesses down to the tenor of the times. Being anti-establishment just made sense back then. But nowadays, nobody teaches the kids right from wrong anymore, and some dunderhead went and banned prayer from schools. Finally, Cullen seals the deal by avowing the objective existence of the devil, and then claiming that, if he had it to do all over again, he would never have written the film. It's a truly fascinating glimpse into how de Sade's ideas still seem to threaten the status quo. Also included on the disc: alternate title sequences that are nothing more than opening credits over a static backdrop, one in English, one in French. The spoiler-laden theatrical trailer pretty much gives the whole show away. And there's a handful of trailers for other Kino/Redemption titles.
Marquis de Sade's Justine is cruel to be kind, with a striking Blu-ray transfer and a pair of intriguing interviews, from Kino and Redemption Films.