Justinewas the first of 30 Jesús Franco films I watched over the past year. While many have been quite enjoyable (and several have been quite deplorable), this 1969 feature remains my favorite. Others come very close, and there is a solid argument thatJustineis in fact a mostly uncharacteristic Franco film, but as a movie that shows the genuine, often untapped talent that this eclectically erratic filmmaker possessed, it is exceptional.
Out now on a new Blue Underground Blu-ray,Justine—officially,Marquis de Sade’s Justine—bears the subtitle, “The Misfortunes of Virtue,” which is indeed the essential theme of the picture. Played by an 18-year-old Romina Power (the character is 12 in de Sade’s novel), Justine is “too good to be true,” according to her dubious sister, Juliette (Maria Rohm), and she spends her life trying to be an upstanding young woman, only to be repeatedly punished for her integrity. She is a naive innocent who falls victim to corruption and wickedness at every turn, becoming the subject of abuse, molestation, and coercion. As the film proceeds in a series of episodic vignettes, she is taken advantage of in one unpleasant situation after another, while her sister, who exuberantly revels in her bad behavior, goes through life unscathed, even rewarded. The film’s back and forth between the siblings emphasizes the polarity of their paths and stresses the undue injustice of the world. Though in the end Juliette expresses admiration for Justine’s ethical endurance, acknowledging that her licentious indulgences, by comparison, have left her prosperous but empty, thus concluding the film on a morally uplifting note, the previous two hours certainly suggest otherwise; goodness does not seem to pay.
Rosemary Dexter was Franco’s first choice for the title role (and she does appear as a side character), but Hollywood brass pushed for the selection of Power, who was, after all, the daughter of classic Tinseltown star Tyrone Power. Even as recently as 2004, Franco expressed his displeasure in her stilted performance, a complaint echoed by many reviewers at the time. Aside from Power though, whom I rather enjoy, leading the roster of identifiable talents is Klaus Kinski, who plays the imprisoned de Sade as he is plagued by visions of debauchery that will provide the basis for the story soon to unfold. (Interestingly, Orson Welles, who had employed Franco as second unit director on his masterful 1965 filmChimes at Midnight, was first offered the role of de Sade, but turned it down, vowing not to do “erotic” films.) A malicious Mercedes McCambridge, having just appeared in Franco’s99 Womenearlier that year, plays Madame Dusbois, an older, seasoned criminal who takes Justine under her devious wing. Then, in what is the most curious casting of the film, Jack Palance is Antonin, the leader of a hedonistic group of men in pursuit of “supreme pleasure.” Palance, who was, according to Franco, drunk “all the time,” nevertheless received the director’s praise. Though his performance is distractingly, hilariously, surprisingly, and bafflingly over the top, it is crucial, for it is he who gives voice to the film’s thematic inquiry into the merits of good versus evil, of unwavering virtue versus carnal decadence. Heading his troupe of pleasure seekers, Antonin posits that Justine’s own ultimate pleasure is to “endure,” assigning to the girl a masochism that threatens to bring her down to the level of those she has hitherto scorned.
Ultimately,Justineisn’t exactly what Franco envisioned, and it certainly doesn’t resemble what hard-core de Sade fans would expect (even with the sex, the violence, and the perversions). In a generally pleasant way,Justinehas a strongly whimsical fairy tale quality that, while serving its purpose well, does admittedly undermine some of the notorious author’s provocative intent. Among the inclusions that stand out as being distinctly in opposition to Sadeian custom is the introduction of Raymond (Harald Leipnitz), an artist who is respectfully enamored by Justine and is essentially the film’s sole representation of decency. Though the respite with Raymond is short lived, a refreshingly happy, physically stunning Power shines in these rare moments of joy. Further distancingJustinefrom the severity of de Sade’s source novel is what Franco scholar Stephen Thrower calls a “comic bawdiness.” Rarely funny, this type of bumbling foolishness further undercuts the story’s more philosophical ambitions.
Starting as a French-Spanish-Italian co-production, the Spanish backers soon abortedJustinefor fear of censorial interference, or worse (Franco suggests the material in the film could have landed them in prison). Despite this lack of Spanish support, however, and the subsequent threat of legal and political action, the cast and crew continued working in Spain for about two months. Franco says some of those involved were putting in 12-hour days; given that this was one of seven films he released that year, such a pace is not at all surprising. At more than $1 million, this was also Franco’s highest budget to date, and far more so than much of his work, the funds are clearly evident in the comparatively lavish sets, the detailed costumes, the extras, a few solid action sequences, and of course, the cast.
Still, Franco’s camerawork can be a little shaky, the focus is occasionally inconsistent (particularly when the director gets typically zoom-happy), and the editing can be rather choppy. But this jarring style is not only commonplace with Franco, it is actually part of his charm—a randomness of formal design indicative of unbridled exuberance, a persistence in the face of technical deficiency, and a prolific output that judicious technique can’t always keep up with. WithJustine, again largely due to budgetary incentives, there are, at the same time (even more so, actually), carefully arranged and often quite appealing compositions, fluidly adept dollies and crane shots, and a variety of lighting patterns and filters that render the film brilliantly colorful. Supporting this formal control is a less freewheeling narrative.Justinemoves along without any major meandering or uncertainty in terms of plot exposition. Some sections may linger on the side stories a little longer than necessary, and the film itself is a longer than necessary 124 minutes, but these scenes nevertheless emphasize Justine’s cruel surrounding world and set up the individual threats that await her.
Thrower saysJustineis basically a, “very, very polished exploitation film.” True enough. Though the film does have a degree of prestige (not a term one often associates with Franco, even his admirers), there is still ample nudity and such Sadeian imagery as women chained and tortured. Yet Thrower and others seem to deride the picture for its reasonably efficient execution and its conventional features. Compared to so many other Franco films,Justineis pretty standard in terms of form and content, but this is hardly a reason to put it down. Franco’s grittier work, those films that do truly exploit sex, violence, crime, and the supernatural, all depicted in a raw and irregular, though nonetheless fascinating style, do have their grounds for appreciation; many of these films even benefit from the very lack of constructive attributes seen inJustine. But it is here, perhaps more than in any of his other films, that one sees a hint, if not the fullest expression of, Jesús Franco’s innate cinematic ability.