This pseudo-lavish adaptation of the Marques de Sade's classic novel "Justine" was one of the first products of the fruitful collaboration between wayward Spanish oddball Jess Franco and TV & radio veteran turned feature film producer, Harry Alan Towers; It illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses that came to characterise most of the films they made together during the late sixties: rare flashes of intriguing brilliance are consistently constrained and overshadowed by the results of ultra-tight scheduling and the constant need to placate the requirements of the "drive-in" market. Nevertheless, the film has always been a source of fascination for Franco fans since it represents the one time the great man came anywhere near acquiring a half-decent budget ($1,000,000), although most of this was apparently spent on the period costumes!
"Justine" tells the immoral tale of two young orphan girls, Justine and Juliette, and the very different lives they come to lead thanks to their differing moral decisions. When both girls are cast out of a nunnery due to lack of funds, Juliette turns to prostitution, thieving, and eventually, murder -- while Justine refuses to compromise her virtue and is rewarded by being abused and cheated-on by almost everyone she meets! Juilette's lack of moral scruples though, are rewarded with a life of luxury and a rich husband! The film follows both girls across a picturesque Spanish countryside (presumably doubling for France) as the innocent Justine falls into the hands of increasingly dubious characters, while her one-time friend's life only increases to improve in material terms as her moral decay accelerates.
Franco was brought to the attention of Towers by his 1967 surrealism-tinged opus, "Succubus". The producer was mining a lucrative seam by adapting the public domain works of Sax Rohmer and Edgar Wallace for the screen, and was looking for a suitable director to helm a feature based on the work of the Marques de Sade. The dreamlike eroticism of "Succubus" convinced him Franco was the man for the job! The director was set to work on the latest in a series of Fu Manchu films ("The Blood of Fu Manchu") while Towers thrashed out a screenplay under his pen-name, Peter Welbeck. The film was eventually shot in Barcelona amid buildings designed by 19th century architect Antonio Gaudi and a virtual who's who of Euro-cult cinema. It's one of the most sumptuous looking Franco movies but is ultimately a rather stilted affair; even the eroticism is rather discreetly done, and the film ends up feeling not really representative of either Franco or de Sade.
Franco's direction is mostly rather bland and generic and this was a problem that seems to have afflicted most of his work for Towers. Franco could always be relied on to bring in a film on time and on budget, but the tight filming schedule would inevitably takes its toll on quality, and Franco's direction would often be very much of the "point-the-camera-and-hope-for-the-best" variety. Ironically, the director had a relatively luxurious schedule of six weeks for "Justine" but is stuck with a rather uninteresting interpretation of the story from Towers' screenplay and an uninspiring lead actress in the form of Romina Power, daughter of actor Tyron Power, who Franco was forced to use through studio pressure. The gorgeous looking cinematography, expensive period costumes and a lush score from Bruno Nicolai all help to disguise the faults to some extent, as do the visually stimulating locations, but Franco's trademark twisted eroticism is mostly missing despite the large quantity of euro-babe flesh on display.
Luckily there are enough good qualities to save this from being a total yawn. Although burdened with a poor lead actress, the film is resplendent with some top notch performances from some of Europe's finest. Maria Rohm, wife of Harry Alan Towers and a regular in all the Franco/Towers films, is as always, magnificent as the beautiful but degenerate Juliette -- as is her criminal cohort and lover Rosemary Dexter (originally Franco's choice for the lead role). Klaus Kinski and Jack Palance seem to bring out the best in Franco, since it is their sections of the film in which the director seems to spring to life, and we get some of the menacing, erotic nightmare quality of Franco's best work. Kinski plays de Sade in a series of short vignettes, filmed intensively over two days with Franco himself behind the camera, which are meant to represent de Sade being haunted by his own tormented characters as he writes the story in jail. Palance, meanwhile gives a crazed and drunken performance (mainly because he WAS crazed and drunken on the set according to Franco) as a debauched self-styled monk who has started up his own sect in the middle of the French countryside, devoted to the pursuit of pleasure through sadism. It is in these sequences that we find the true spirit of Franco's cinema. Bold and irrational lighting schemes of neon magenta, vibrant lilac, and florescent blues and greens; actors and actresses arranged in bizarre mannequin-like posses; erratic camera zooms and out of focus shots; and unsettling, dreamlike, serpentine scenes of candy-coloured torture ... all these elements we find in Franco's best, and most personal work; and thanks to the magnificent transfer on this DVD, they have never looked as vivid and compelling as they do here! But unfortunately, these elements only account for about twenty minutes of the film's two-hour running time! The rest of the time we have a mildly titillating, beautifully photographed, historical melodrama that does little to stimulate the senses. The major theme of the original story involves Justine coming to enjoy the abuse and torture she experiences, but according to Franco, Romana Power was incapable of understanding the concept, let alone acting it out! Ultimately the film cheats, and draws away from de Sade's razor-sharp dissection of religious hypocrisy at the very last moment, negating the force of everything that has come before with a simple-minded moral lesson that would have made de Sade laugh out loud.
The Anchor Bay UK DVD is fabulous -- the film has never looked better. We get a valuable twenty-minute featurette on the making of the movie in which Franco and Towers contradict each other throughout, and the usual collection of biographies and art galleries. But the real star of the show is the transfer (created by Blue Underground and ported over for the UK release) which at least makes the film a visually appealing spectacle even when there is not much else to get excited about!