Welcome to the first installment of our raunchiest series yet: Trash Culture After Dark! And what better way to inaugurate it than with a collaboration that stretches across centuries by two of the most prolific perverts in history, the Marquis de Sade and Jess Franco?
Jesús “Jess” Franco, who died in 2013, has directed over 200 films in a career that’s been two years shy of six decades. If you were around for the golden age of mom-and-pop rental stores, you no doubt saw him overrepresented in the unofficial eurotrash section all of your more discriminating rental joints had. Who can forget films with titles like Lust for Frankenstein, Vampyros Lesbos, A Virgin Among The Living Dead, and White Cannibal Queen? Like the somewhat more respected Ken Russell, Jess Franco was adept at combining an old-school exploitation film mystique with the sensibilities of a highbrow auteur director like Peter Greenaway or David Lynch, to a point where some of Jess Franco’s films have narratives just as incomprehensible as that of the most impenetrable arthouse darling.
Like Franco, the Marquis de Sade was prolific. All of his unpublished work was destroyed by his son after Sade’s death. Some of it also languishes in obscurity even among Sade buffs because it isn’t the violent, philosophically-tinged pornography he became famous for, but more conventional-for-his-time, PG-rated fare (which, ironically, is what he really wanted to be known for). However, his surviving works are more than enough for anyone. The English translation of his doorstopper novel, “Juliette, Or The Prosperities of Vice”, clocks in at over 1,000 pages. That’s a lot of orgies intermixed with radical philosophical conversations!
Both Sade and Franco were naturally targets of censorship. Jess Franco left Spain to avoid having to bow to the censors employed by its Fascist government and butted heads with the Catholic Church, which deemed him the “most dangerous filmmaker alive.” Sade fared much worse, spending the majority of his adult life imprisoned, first in a series of prisons for committing blasphemous acts in the middle of an orgy with prostitutes and then later in an insane asylum, by command of the government of Emperor Napoleon, for his writings. It’s been suggested by many scholars of Sade that, while he undeniably wrote philosophical pornography (which, yes, was an entire genre in eighteenth century France) for the money, his writings were also an expression of rage against what he saw as the hypocritical society that had stripped him of his freedom.
Believe it or not, Justine is arguably the tamest of Sade’s works, but it was also the most infamous in his own time. It was a satirical response to the then popular idea of the wronged, virtuous heroine. The most famous example of that was British novelist Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, but that novel and similar works were big in French. Essentially the usual narrative is that of a woman who clings to her virtue despite suffering harassment and cruelty at the hands of powerful men. This and similar narratives were meant to prove one of the Enlightenment’s most popular ideas, most notably pushed by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that virtuous behavior is natural and cruelty and crime are the products of a corrupt society. Sade flipped that totally, not just in Justine but all of his work. What if it’s not virtue that’s natural, but cruelty? And what if it’s virtue that’s a construct of society that’s used to just hold people back and even let institutions like the Catholic Church exploit them? How serious Sade was about this philosophy and how much it was just him screaming against a society that turned against him is something that could (and has!) take up whole books, as eerily similar as the politics in Sade’s fiction sounds to certain ideas pushed in the twentieth century (*cough* Ayn Rand *ahem*). Even in the French Revolution Sade, who became part of the government in Paris, passed on a chance to have his in-laws persecuted even though they played a big role in his first round of imprisonments, even though it put him in danger. Regardless, in his pornography Sade’s protagonists revel in selfishness as much as sex and violence.
I believe that’s enough of a preamble. Believe me, this was almost twice as long until I cut it down, so let’s get to the movie itself…
The film opens with the Marquis de Sade (Klaus Kinski!) being transported to a prison, implied to be the notorious Bastille. In his cell, though, he fights his despair and frustration by taking up a pen and beginning to write…
Justine (Romina Power) and her sister Juliette (Maria Rohm) are two young women being educated in a convent. Juliette is a cynic and rebel who sums up her ideology with, “It isn’t doing wrong that’s dangerous; it’s being found out!” Justine, however, is a devout Catholic who only wants to quietly do what’s expected of her. Unfortunately, the two girls suddenly find out that their father has had to flee the country because of debt and their mother has died “from grief.” As a result, there’s no more money coming in for their room and board at the convent, except a very small inheritance for each girl, and as a result they’ll have to leave the convent that’s been their home for years almost immediately.
The paths of the two girls diverge right away. Juliette goes to a brothel to become a new recruit. There she becomes the friend and lover of a fellow prostitute, with whom she embarks on a career of theft and murder that makes them both wealthy – until Juliette murders her love too in order to claim all of their the wealth for herself. In the end, she becomes the mistress of a powerful government minister.
Justine has a rather different experience. A man in monk’s robes tricks her into handing over all of her money for “safekeeping”, forcing Justine into taking a job as a maid in a sketchy boarding house owned by Harpin (Akim Tamiroff). One of the boarders tries to seduce Justine and she goes to Harpin expecting sympathy – but finds out that Harpin was encouraging the boarder’s attraction to Justine so that Justine would have an opportunity to steal a jewelry box. When she refuses, Harpin beats her and the spurned boarder frames her before the city guards for stealing a gold broach. In prison Justine catches the eye of the lesbian arch-criminal Dubois (Mercedes McCambridge), who takes Justine with her when her gang busts her out of prison. Dubois eagerly accepts her as a member of the gang, but Justine escapes from them into the woods when the gang violently falls out with each other over Justine herself.
Justine finally catches a well-deserved break when she is taken in by a wealthy artist Raymond (Harald Leipnitz) and over their weeks together she falls in love with him. Even this is just a reprieve, however, because the appearance of authorities forces Justine to flee again, only to end up on the lands of the Marquis de Bressac (Horst Frank). Because the Marquis very much prefers the company of his male lover to that of his wife but depends on his wife’s fortune, Bressac forcibly enlists Justine to become the servant of his wife, the Marquise (Sylva Koscina), until she has an opportunity to poison her, or else Bressac will claim that Justine planned to kill her alone. Despite Justine’s best efforts to warn the Marquise, Bressac succeeds in poisoning her anyway, and punishes Justine for her “treason” by branding her with a ‘M’ for murderess and sending her back into the woods again.
Next time she seeks refuge with a monastery inhabited by only four monks (with one portrayed by celebrated Franco regular, Howard Vernon) led by Father Antonin (Jack Palance!). Unfortunately, it just so happens that the monastery has devolved into a weird cult literally worshiping pleasure with a quite insane Father Antonin as its demi-god and with rites that one would say revolve around torturing women if it didn’t appear that they only consisted of torturing women. After she’s broken down by the monastery’s “rites”, Father Antonin accuses Justine of also seeking pleasure, the “ultimate pleasure” of enduring, and when Justine agrees that this would mean Antonin is the virtuous man and she the sinner, he takes it as a sign that Justine has converted to their philosophy. Unfortunately, this only means that Justine gets to be sacrificed with a flaming sword, a fate she’s only saved by when a timely severe storm damages part of the monastery, giving her the chance to once again escape.
Collapsing on the road through the forest, Justine just happens to be on the way of Raymond who is riding on a coach to Paris. Raymond leaves Justine to recuperate at a inn. Sadly, Dubois, who is now running the eighteenth century equivalent of a burlesque show, just happens to be back in Paris and noticed her come into the city. Dubois’ revenge for Justine spurring her “hospitality” leads to her finally coming to the attention of the authorities, who are about to condemn her when Juliette intervenes and, invoking the political power of her lover, saves her. Juliette assures the traumatized Justine that, even though Juliette thrived while Justine suffered, none of Juliette’s wealth or power sated the emptiness inside her. With Juliette’s blessing, Justine settles down at one of Juliette’s country estates with Raymond at her side.
Probably the most noteworthy thing about this movie, beyond that no director (except maybe Ken Russell) in all of film’s history would have been better suited for the source material, is that it’s tame by both Sade’s and Franco’s standards. Regardless, it is a pretty faithful adaptation, considering it removes even more of the tribulations Justine faces. Justine herself is a deeper character than in the book, to the film’s benefit, and Maria Rohm’s portrayal of Justine as an innocent who can be playful in even a sexual way and has ambitions of traveling the globe adds a bit of pathos once things start going so very, very wrong for her. Indeed, it is telling that she, not Juliette, is the one who is ever shown having moments of unguarded happiness.
Also for an exploitation film based on a work by Sade, the film is shockingly chaste. Despite what you (and I) may have been expecting, Justine is often topless, but that is the limit of it. Even during her stay at the monastery, the weirdest and most harrowing episode in both book and film, through a blur of chaotic images the worst that happens to Juliette that the viewer sees is her getting the acupuncture session from hell. Despite that, this Justine does have a sexuality, which is more than might be said of the book’s heroine and might be part of an “updating” of the story’s moral, which I’ll return to shortly. The film’s script also skimps on Sade’s militant atheism, which biographers of Sade tend to agree is definitely the one thing his characters preached that Sade actually believed in real life, aside from a couple of lines where Justine’s tormentors taunt her trust in God. Gone is Bressac offering to help Justine if she renounces Christianity, or the less than respectful way the monks handle a communion wafer.
The biggest change by far is the ending. In it, Sade (as the final joke on Pamela-esque heroines) has Justine rescued by her sister, absolved from all legal trouble, and is set for life through a generous income, only to suddenly be struck down by a random bolt of lightning. This does not happen in the film, even though Sade is shown anguishing over the ending and perhaps crossing some words out (at least that’s my interpretation; it’s Jess Franco, though, so who knows?).
The change in ending upends the whole moral of the original book, so what was Franco going for? Was he trying to break with Sade’s simultaneously anti-humanist and anti-Christian message that people are inherently bad and should wallow in the fact, instead suggesting people are inherently good but it’s institutions and people in power that are bad? That would be a good updated message for the ’60s. Backing that interpretation is how Justine is really more naive flower child than devout pre-Revolution French maid. It’s Justine for the ’60s. It ain’t about vice versus virtue, man; it’s about love and just living life versus the pursuit of wealth and power.
That’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but how’s the actual movie? Well, to be honest, I’ve been fleeing that question. I’ve been fascinated by Franco and Sade for so very long, and this movie is such a perfect intersection of their work that I really have no idea what “norms” might make of it. Admittedly it does have the usual eurotrash pitfalls like bland dubbing. On one hand, the dubbing does ruin the most authentically Sadean moment in the whole film, when a prostitute gives Juliette a bit of philosophical instruction about the benefits of vice:
Now remember what I told you, virtue must be avoided. It’s sure disaster. And poverty also must be avoided at all cost.
But how? If like us, you’re young and in a hurry…
By crime, of course. The viler the better, for vice is most amply awarded.
Imagine all that being delivered by a sixth grader giving a presentation on The Scarlet Letter and you are probably very close to the mark.
On the other hand, the rather listless dubbing Jack Palance gets does very little to diminish just how much of a scenery-chewing , utterly deranged tour de force he gives to the role. Plus if the dubbing gets to you, you can at least enjoy the gorgeous Catalonian countryside. The decaying castle that serves as the backdrop for the monastery is a choice that gives the proceedings an authentic edge Sade enthusiasts are sure to recognize, and at least it and quite a few of the other buildings and forested areas give the entire proceedings an appropriately gothic veneer.
Less impressive are the empty, dark spaces that are supposed to represent the Marquis de Sade’s cell, forming the accidental irony that the “real” narrative scenes feel less tangible than the rest of the film that is just supposed to be Sade’s imagination. At least you do get Klaus Kinski doing a frightfully convincing job of conveying Sade in the throes of madness with only his eyes and facial expressions. Well acted as they are, these scenes do have a tendency of stopping the movie dead and are as pointless as they are pretentious, except perhaps making you wish you could also watch a movie starring Klaus Kinski as the Marquis where he gets to speak actual dialogue beyond snippets of narration.
Even with my earlier disclaimer, I do think it’s fairly safe to tell you norms that this movie is one of the better Jess Franco efforts and a good sample of eurotrash cinema. Despite not being nearly as racy as you might expect the meeting of the infamous minds to be, it’s still true to the spirit of both. To steal a line from The Cinema Snob, certainly it’s worth watching if you’ve ever wanted to see two of the greatest contributors of the “I dare you to masturbate to this” genre join forces.