Blue Underground // 1968 // 124 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // November 15th, 2002
Hell hath no fury like an exploitation audience scorned!
Just when it seems like life at the Holy Mothers of the Oddly Habited convent can't get any more un-involving, Justine and her sister Juliette are shown the door because Daddy's consumption consumed him and his church supporting fortune. Just like every other heroine from stale European literature, they take a progressively ponderous pilgrimage from one attempted defilement to another. After weighing their options, which are fairly substantial considering this is the enlightened age where words like "woman" and "worthless biological chattel" are virtually interchangeable, Juliette becomes a whore and Justine pursues a career in aimless wandering. She falls into a very postmodern, low self-esteem stemming feminist arrangement of playing good-natured doormat to all the local deviants. From a soup-slurping innkeeper who wants her to fluff his mutton chops, to a fey Marquis whose boyfriend looks more female and shapely than she, Justine is used, abused, and confused by the wickedness, not to mention the acting talent, surrounding her. While Julie robs, kills, and practices the French arts on several hundred thousand members of the ruling class with her lesbian partner in larceny, Justine ends up in jail, is taken in by a band of repugnant gypsies and branded with a letter "M" (for "monotonous"). Our juiceless Just finally finds herself in the Jack Palance Halfway House for Homeless Runaways and the Criminally Overacting, which turns out to be a cult of flesh fetish freaks. In the end we learn that, while he might have been one of the most perverted minds in the history of sexual dysfunction, Harold Robbins ain't got nothing on the soap operish plottings of the Marquis de Sade's literary quirks.
When is a bawdy, ribald tale of a wanton wench and her very naughty sexual adventures as boring as a trip to the Field Museum to watch dinosaur bones fossilize? Why, when the story is the Marquis de Sade's Justine and it is crammed into a cinematic softcore pigeonhole by cult director Jess Franco. Now, anyone who has studied the growth of the novel into an artist form has sat through some incredible intercollegiate doldrums. They have been lulled into a senseless level of empty-headedness by countless lectures by drunken professors about the symbolism in Fielding or the numerous ass jokes found in the works of Thomas Hardy. Well, this Undressed Mess of the Dull'Ubervilles is just as stilted and unbelievable as Virginia Wolfe's continuing literary influence. Again, history is healthed up here as we revisit an 18th century cinematic setting where everyone seems disease free, practicing historically inaccurate levels of personal hygiene, and are more or less in possession of their own teeth. No one here looks grubby or peasant-ish. Unless you count the name actors involved. Famous faces like Mercedes McCambridge (sounding so much like the demon in The Exorcist you half expect her to tell everyone she meets about what their mothers suckle on in Hell) the unbalanced Palanced Jack, and Klaus Kinski (doing Geoffrey Rush's version of the sick Sade from Quills one better by essaying the entire role in silent pantomime) seem confused, as if they opened their paychecks and found salted haycorns. Franco does the best that he can with what are essentially a half-dozen or so pickled Hollywood bedeviled hams and a few faux foreign façades. The film is beautiful to look at, but almost impossible to endure either as a drama or an exercise in the erotic. Let's face it, Kiwi Shoe polish is more sexually enticing that this film.
If you are looking for someone to blame, try Romina Power, daughter of a still ashamed Tyrone. She plays Justine like an indentured flower child, so laid back that she's practically supine. In interviews for this film (including one recorded for the DVD), director Franco describes her in a fashion that no critic could outdo. To paraphrase, she was like furniture: just put her in a room, turn her the right way toward the camera, and hope it looks okay. Or maybe one should trounce a little on screenwriter and producer Harry Alan Towers (nice name for a soft core entrepreneur, huh?) for turning the mad Marquis' work into a cross between The Canterbury Tales and Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway. The only humor here is inadvertent, it's about as sexy as your grandmother's braided armpit hair and the trademarked sadism does not come from the story. It comes from having to watch the film. It's as if Towers took the novel, highlighted all the naughty bits, and then used everything else as his script. But there is still more blame to go around. How about taking Bruno Nicolai's musical score to task? He mixes Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and a little Debussey for good measure, siphons out all the aforementioned talent, and then forces together certain motifs and lifted riffs to create a familiar, and yet totally atonal bit of classical gastric juice. Marquis de Sade's Justine is a horrible film, so devoid of deviants and paltry in pleasures that you'll question the lineage and parental love and caring of all involved. If you're looking for a compelling cinematic S&M session, go rent Exit to Eden.
With most exploitation films, it's readily understandable why they are held in fondly cherished memory. Even when they are atrocious, one can decipher a performance, or a tone, or the one brilliant or brainless bit that keeps the creeps coming back for more. So this naturally leads to the question: what in the name of Claudia Cardinale was the reason for Blue Underground to restore and release Marquis de Sade's Justine? Agreed, it is a sumptuous film, and the near flawless, 1.66:1 digitally remastered anamorphic widescreen image is dazzling. But aurally, the soundtrack is so over modulated and filled with ear bleeding treble that deaf dogs in Denmark will sit up and beg for sonic mercy. Thank god it is Dolby Digital Mono so that the irritating distortion doesn't shuffle from channel to channel. The Big Blue U even throws in an informative, frank, and honest set of interviews with Franco and Towers. These crusty old coots are not afraid to take each other and their actors to task. But after the last trailer has played and you've viewed the galleries and biographical information, what do you have left? There is nothing to shock, amaze, or entice here. The scenery is gorgeous (especially a shot near a magnificent, waterfall like fountain) and the costumes effective. But when dealing with a movie that is supposed to explore the unspoken perversities of masochism or the consistent testing of a virtuous young lady's big "V," we shouldn't be talking about art direction. Marquis de Sade's Justine is just a wane, sad asexual serving of dull deviance. It wants to be Fanny Hill, but it can't even assemble a workable Fanny Flagg.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Photo and Poster Gallery
* Interview Featurette: The Perils and Pleasures of Justine
* Jess Franco Biography
* Enclosed Linear Notes Essay