Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1977) – By Cary Conley

Chris Boger, better known for his work on music videos and concert footage, especially his work with Led Zeppelin, directed this slice of Eurosleaze based on one of de Sade’s early novels (and with a secondary title in both book and film as "The Misfortunes of Virtue"). The film follows the lives of two lovely young lasses, sisters Justine and Juliette, who live and are being educated in a convent. Juliette despises religion and openly flaunts her sexuality, alternately teasing and frustrating the other nuns with her nude cavorting. But chaste and naive Justine thrives on the rigor of religion; she is appalled and ashamed at her sister’s actions and even more upset when she must fight off the Mother Superior’s sexual advances. But when their parents die, they are summarily tossed out of the convent. The pair make their way to London where Juliette plans on earning a living as a whore and hopes to teach her sister a thing or two about sex along the way.

Once in London, Juliette wastes no time in learning the art of pleasing men and immediately captures the attention of a young nobleman who enjoys her company even as he keeps one eye on Justine. Fearing for her virginity, Justine leaves the house of ill repute to make her way back to the convent and a friendly priest who had previously offered the girls his help. But as Justine soon finds out, trying to remain virtuous in a sinful world is more difficult than one might imagine.

On the surface, Justine seems like the typical sexploitation fare coming from Europe throughout the seventies, a time when many European directors were mining de Sade’s collective works. While no doubt controversial at the time of its release, the film seems more closely related to Jess Franco’s low-budget S&M sex flicks of the period than to Pasolini’s debauched epic Salo, perhaps his–and de Sade’s–most well-known work. Justine opens much like a nunsploitation film, with some exceptionally horny sisters willing to "teach" the pair about the lonely reality of life in a convent. But the film quickly switches tone once the sisters are forced to leave the convent to travel to the sinful slums of London. There is some well-intentioned but misplaced broad humor in the whorehouse as George, the flowery resident stud of the house initiates the girls into a life of prostitution, but it doesn’t really work all that well.

Justine does work on another level, though; it works quite well as a rather dark and nihilistic morality tale. As young Justine wanders the English countryside, she is forced into lies and thievery in order to survive, sins she believes will doom her to Hell. And she pays for these sins by being raped multiple times before her short, tragic life comes to a brutal end. While the film also works fine as sexploitation, it is surprisingly graphic and depressing at times. Witness the attack of one wealthy family’s carriage: the thieves show no concern over murdering a small child and one of the band of robbers can’t help but hop on a recently deceased corpse for a bit of necrophilic (!) fun before leaving the scene of the crime. The ending is just as dark as sweet Justine, who never wanted to leave the convent in the first place–is raped by two thugs before being murdered and summarily dumped into a lake. Truly, the secondary title for this film, "The Misfortunes of Virtue" is quite accurate.

The beautiful but child-like Koo Stark, star of the previous year’s The Awakening of Emily, was just 20 years old when she starred as Justine. With her smallish breasts she looks about 15, which lends the film a vaguely pedophilic atmosphere. Lydia Lisle co-stars as Juliette, Justine’s oversexed older sister. Fuller in body than Stark, she is also quite attractive as she rolls around nude in the convent, caressing and squeezing her breasts. Together, the pair make the movie as they both traipse around fully nude throughout the film. The cinematography, Roger Deakins’ first lensing of a full-length feature, is very good. The film is filled with beautiful English countryscapes and fog-shrouded moors. Even this early in his career (Deakins was also director of photography for films such as The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind, No Country for Old Men, and many of the Coen Brothers’ films), he showed he had a great deal of talent.

Marquis de Sade’s Justine may not be as cruel as other films made under de Sade’s name, and is uneven in places, but it works nicely as a seventies sexploitation film–one of the few that had an underlying message. Redemption in conjunction with Kino Lorber has just released the film remastered in HD and in its uncut version on both DVD and Blu-Ray. The film comes with several features that include an interview with director Boger as well as with screenwriter Ian Cullen. It also contains two alternate title sequences, a photo gallery, and the theatrical trailer. For more information about the film, see www.kinolorber.com/redemption.