If you write 183 different films, then the odds are pretty good that you’re going to have some winners and some losers in there, right? I mean … even if we’re really only talking statistically – with all that we’ve been told about a thousand monkeys typing endlessly, and one will eventually, inevitably produce something Shakespearean – then doesn’t it stand to reason that the screenwriter should find some successes and failures … right?
Now, let’s add another later:
If you direct an astonishing 207 different films, then the odds are pretty that – just like I stated above – you’re going to have the same? Some good, some bad, some ugly. I mean … it just stands to reason that would be the case … right?
I haven’t seen nearly as much from the library of works of Jess Franco (aka Jesus Franco) as have others. If I’m being perfectly honest, then I’d have to admit that friends and associates have largely encouraged me to avoid some specific titles – not his entire body of “art” – and I’ve never had cause to doubt the advice. I can say that what I have seen hasn’t been all that … erm … what’s the word? Impressive? Persuasive? Relatable? When it comes to productions, I do tend to identify more with films featuring characters I can relate to, and Franco allegedly trafficked in an awful lot of exploitation stuff. And, hey, I’ve no problem with that … but again I keep coming back to the lack of a logically progressing plot being a central requirement.
On that front, I think Franco probably swung and missed more than most, but he probably has a solid reputation wherein his misses might just make for a reasonable way to be entertained for an hour or two. These aren’t grand films by any estimation – at least, none that I’ve seen – but there’s still something about them that I just can’t quite put my finger on …
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“Penniless and separated from her sister, a beautiful, chaste orphan must endure an endless parade of villains, perverts, and degenerates who covet her virtue and life.”
Rarely do I try to mix words on narrative issues, but I do wish to be clear on this point: Franco’s Marquis de Sade’s Justine isn’t so much a picture as it is a parable. Based entirely on the script’s construction – as adapted from the novel by Harry Alan Towers, Arpad DeRiso, and Erich Konte – I’ve absolutely no doubt that’s how this meager potboiler was intended from start-to-finish. In that regard, it actually works quite efficiently, maybe even “textbook” as they say.
So if that’s what awaits each of us, then why take the high road? I suspect those sentiments were probably what the Marquis himself had in mind, given what history has told us about how he lived his life of debauchery.
Still, the script adds one more layer of context worthy of note. While the exploits of Justine and Juliette occupy the bulk of screen time, de Sade himself – in the guise of actor Klaus Kinski – turns in a somewhat tortured performance as the man behind bars. In these vignettes, he’s somewhat tortured – not physically so much as in mentally with vivid memories of his exploits – and pontificates (in voiceover fashion) about the nature of his life and choices. It may not be perfectly understandable – I found these sequences to be a bit distracting at times, mostly because they featured the leading ladies roleplaying out whatever de Sade was going on about this time – but they do elevate an otherwise routine good-girl-bad-girl dynamic that develops rather quickly between the sisters at odds socially.
Also, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that Justine – the film, not the lady – looks pretty fabulous. I’ve read that the film was one of the best budgets that the controversial filmmaker had to work with; and I think that shows very consistently throughout the feature. Granted, there are a few practical sets here which could’ve used a bit more visual flavor, but the location shooting, costumes, and props all are a cut above lesser efforts; and they do give the production a greater feel of authenticity when it comes to considering it as a period piece. Kudos to all involved for putting the cash invested to good use.
However, Justine – a picture often talked about for its promiscuousness – is fairly void of anything genuinely sensual. Granted, some of this might be owed to the fact that this was produced in the late 1960’s, and Franco had to work with producing something that could and would get past censors of the day. Far too much of it feels staged – a weakness I’ve found in many period pictures – and the performances end up too uninspired or leaning a bit too cartoonish to develop any palpable tension.
In fact, the late Jack Palance shows up (for some reason) as the leader of what appears to be some 17th century sex cult, and his (ahem) accent is downright laughable … and I mean ‘laughable’ to the point of absurdity in a few places. I can’t discount the idea of what his character represented here – it’s all developed within context of the place and time – but … Jack Palance? A French S&M ruler? Was there literally no French actors of note who could’ve stepped up and salvaged this sequence?
Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969) was produced by Etablissement Sargon, Corona Filmproduktion, Aica Cinematografica S.R.L., and American International Pictures (AIP). DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated via the good folks at Blue Underground. As for the technical specifications? Though I’m no trained video expert, I can assure you that this picture looks and sounds fabulous from start-to-finish.
If you’re looking for special features, then buckle up, buttercup! This two-disc collection features an audio commentary (film historians Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth) on the 4K disc, but then head on over to the Blu-ray one for quite a bit more, including cast and crew interviews, trailers, stills, an alternate U.S. edit of the film, and maybe even a few things extra. It’s a very good collection, and it should keep fans busy for some time.
(Mildly) Recommended, but …
Sigh. Honestly, the films of Jess Franco are always (always!) advertised as ‘erotic’ and/or ‘sleazy’ and – in my humble estimation – those that I’ve seen are barely (barely!) titillating. His Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969) is no different, and – if anything – it’s probably the least titillating of the bunch given the fact that there’s more parable in here than perversion. Honestly, I’d get more ‘hot and bothered’ if I picked this thing up as a recommendation for something carnal only to find out there was so, so, so very little in it. It does boast some interesting production values – and some good location photography – but as anything steamy? Sorry, folks, I’m not seeing it. Nor should you.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Blue Underground provided me with a complimentary 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray of Marquis de Sade’s Justine by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.