Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Justine (1977)

Within the space of less than a decade from 1969 to 1977 there were no less than four movie versions of the Marquis de Sade’s infamous novel Justine, along with movie adaptations of several of his other works. In fact de Sade is probably close to being unfilmable, but you have to admire the film-makers of the 70s for trying. Chris Boger’s De Sade’s Justine (also released in a cut version as Cruel Passion) was a 1977 attempt by British director Chris Boger (his only feature film I believe), and while it’s certainly flawed it’s by no means a complete failure.

The novel was subtitled Virtue Well Chastised which sums up de Sade’s theme fairly well. Two penniless orphan girls set off for the big city to make their fortune. Juliette chooses the path of vice, becomes a highly successful whore, gains great wealth, and has a lot of fun. Her younger sister Justine chooses a rigid adherence to virtue. She remains destitute, endures horrific suffering and has no fun at all.

One major problem with de Sade’s works, and this applies particularly to Justine, is a certain unrelenting grimness. Boger gets around this by putting more emphasis than you might expect on de Sade’s humour. Admittedly de Sade’s humour is cruel and black and dripping with irony, but it is there, and it makes the catalogue of woes that confront our heroine a bit more bearable for a while. And since this is satire it works surprisingly well. The brothel scenes are infused with a bawdy humour that on occasions takes on a Carry On Justine flavour! At the halfway point of the movie the grimness takes over however, and poor Justine stumbles from one misfortune to another.

Juliette in this movie is a surprisingly sympathetic character. Justine herself can tend to be a little annoying, with her blind obsession with virtue, her exasperating naïveté and her persistent refusal to face reality or to do anything positive in the way of self-preservation. We’re supposed to be horrified by her stubborn insistence on pursuing virtue despite the overwhelming evidence she is offered that it doesn’t pay, and we’re supposed to regard her as self-righteous, thoroughly wrong-headed and irritatingly moralistic. Which she is. At the same time we have to care about her or there’s no movie, and Koo Stark manages to make her outrageously innocent and sweet without being cloying. She’s very effective and she’s backed up by fine performances by Lydia Lisle as Juliette, Katherine Kath as the madame of the brothel where Juliette finds prosperity and opportunity and Hope Jackman as a particularly nasty leader of a gang of cut-throats.

Boger and script writer Ian Cullen manage to sneak in at least some of de Sade’s philosophical asides and by concentrating on a few early episodes in the book they successfuly avoid the tedium that would necessarily have resulted from an attempt to cover the entire story. Boger’s direction is well-paced and reasonably stylish while Cullen’s script captures at least a hint of true Sadeianism. The novel contains very large amounts of very unpleasant sex including countless rapes. The movie handles this both discreetly and without avoiding a certain necessary degree of distastefulness. The movie goes far enough in this respect to make it a tolerably honest adaptation without becoming sleazy or overly prurient. Inevitably this film falls a good distance short of total success, but it’s still a worthy attempt and it’s worth a look. The Redemption VHS release was apparently the complete version but I believe their more recent DVD release includes quite a few cuts, which seems very unfortunate and completely unnecessary and is a worrying precedent.

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