Cult director Jess Franco’s first cinematic dabbling with the writings of the Marquis de Sade, MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE, a film once released on VHS in the U.S. in a truncated version as DEADLY SANCTUARY, now arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Blue Underground.
Justine (Romina Power, daughter of Tyrone) and Juliette (Maria Rohm, the wife of producer Harry Alan Towers) are two orphaned sisters cast out of a convent after their father is killed. Juliette retreats to a brothel, where she sparks a love affair with lesbian Claudine (Rosemary Dexter, the original lead before Power was forced on the production). But Justine doesn't get off so easy. After being hired as a maid for a slob innkeeper (Akim Tamiroff, THE VULTURE) and framed for stealing the jewels of a wealthy guest (Gerard Tichy, FACE OF TERROR), her adventures begin. Encountering a lesbian convict (Mercedes McCambridge, 99 WOMEN) and her horny male cohorts and a gay aristocrat (Horst Frank, THE DEAD ARE ALIVE) who schemes to have Justine kill his wife (Sylva Koscina, LISA AND THE DEVIL) is just a warm-up to her confrontation with a cult of sadists who initiate her into their world of otherworldly pleasures.
Too many films have been based on the works of Marquis de Sade, and the majority of them have strayed from the original materials or merely used a title and moved on from there. JUSTINE is an exception. Not only is the film "hosted" by De Sade (Klaus Kinski, CRAWLSPACE), writing the events in a jail cell, but it has the aura of one of De Sade's novels. One can almost feel where the chapters begin and end. Cult film fans will be interested in checking out the incredible cast, possibly Franco's best-known ensemble cast, and it's a nice mix. Romina Power, after taking flack from Franco and many others over the years, really isn't all that bad. She looks innocent through the whole film, which works to an extent, but when the character is supposed to be examining her feelings on pain and pleasure, Power is far from convincing. Maria Rohm's screen time is unfortunately quite brief, but she is lovely as usual. Mercedes McCambridge has a pretty plump role and seems to be having a ball. Jack Palance, on the other hand, is so over-the-top it's almost unbearable to watch. Franco claims that Palance was drunk during the entire shoot, and it's not hard to believe after seeing his delivery. Kinski, in another performance that has been praised over the years, really doesn't do anything in JUSTINE. He sits in his cell, looks confused or bored, writes his book, and that's it. While Franco seems to think Rosemary Dexter would have been a better lead, she looks pretty wooden in general. Soledad Miranda or EUGENIE's Marie Liljedahl would have been better choices. Akim Tamiroff is easily forgotten after his brief appearance, but Sylva Koscina is always great to see, looking lovely as ever in what amounts to yet another extended star cameo. Rosalba Neri (THE DEVIL’S WEDDING NIGHT) has very few lines and does little if anything in the film. Franco's most often used actor, Howard Vernon, makes a brief appearance as one of the sadistic cult members, wearing a ridiculous-looking long black wig.
Like Franco's other films produced by Harry Alan Towers, the production values on JUSTINE are top-notch. The sets and costumes in particular are eye-catching to the extreme, while camerawork (by Manuel Merino) and editing are not as choppy and spontaneous as in Franco's later, more familiar films. The only complaint is the overuse of zooms and out-of-focus shots during Kinski's jail cell sequences, which uproot the viewer quite rudely from the film. The musical score by Bruno Nicolai (one of his first solo works after many years conducting for Ennio Morricone) is a lush symphonic masterpiece, both intriguing a sense of history and permeating the film with an air of class, especially during some of the more exploitative sequences. Franco's infatuation with the works of De Sade would infiltrate many of his later films, but it is here that he lets it all hang out and pays tribute to the master of erotic literature.
First released on DVD by Blue Underground back in 2002, the company is now revisiting the title with a stunning 4K transfer from the original camera negative. The film is presented in 1080p HD in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and this has to be one of the best looking transfers of a 1960s cult/horror film that you’ll ever see. Detail is incredibly sharp and colors carry a stunningly vibrant palette: the greens of the European countryside are absolutely gorgeous, and every single costume is made all the more stunning when remastered in HD. Scenes drenched in red, green, and blue not only recall Bava, but the contrasts in these shots look marvelous. There are life-like fleshtones on display, and grain structure is also excellent. Audio comes in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track, and is complementary to the look of the feature, with dialog being clean and clear and Bruno Nicolai’s extravagant score blanketing the ear superbly. Also included in the package is a standard anamorphic DVD transferred from the same element (and featuring the same supplements), as well as the original score on a bonus soundtrack CD.
Picked up from the 2002 DVD is the 20-minute featurette, "The Perils and Pleasures of Justine", which has Franco going into detail on the film's casting, shooting locations, various cuts around the world, etc. Harry Alan Towers appears briefly to explain how he acquired certain cast members, how he approached Franco to direct the script, et al. Franco, on the other hand, is the star of the piece. He spits venom about the Spanish censors, AIP hesitating to use Bruno Nicolai's score, the sudden casting of Romina Power, his problems with Kinski and Palance (“he drank wine at 7 AM”), and his interpretation of the original De Sade story "Justine". And would you believe Orson Welles was slated to play De Sade before Kinski took his place? A brand new featurette is “Stephen Thrower on JUSTINE” (17:32), where the author discusses the making of the film, calling it the biggest production of Franco’s career (and it shows on the screen) and that producer Towers was mostly interested in adapting literary sources that were in the public domain (no costs). He discusses the Sadian themes in Franco’s films, Palance’s and McCambridge’s over-the-top performances, and he analyzes and criticizes Powers’ performance. The French theatrical trailer advertises the film as THE MISFORTUNES OF VIRTUE, the original shooting title, and manages to not spoil any of the film's surprises for virgin viewers. A poster and stills gallery displays various production stills, international poster artwork, and video and DVD sleeves. An insert booklet is included and features extremely well-written liner notes by Thrower.
JUSTINE isn't a film that will convert any Franco naysayers (see EUGENIE), but it won't leave his fans disappointed. Kinski's scenes could have been eliminated, as the film runs a tad long at over two hours, but compared to other Franco outings, it doesn't wear out its welcome. Quite tame by today's standards, the scenes of sadism and humiliation aren't nearly as effective as they must have been 45 years ago (save, perhaps, the branding scene....), but the composition of JUSTINE ensures it will be nothing less than an intellectually stimulating viewing and a pleasant surprise for those who thought Franco was only capable of delivering films like OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES. (Casey Scott and George R. Reis)
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