Appellate Judge Tom Becker was thrilled to finally see a film where the word "frippery" was used to such good advantage.
"I want to acquaint you with the most barbaric refinements of misery!"
In the early 1970s, porn movies made their way out of the grindhouses and into neighborhood theaters. Films like The Devil in Miss Jones, The Opening of Misty Beethoven, and Behind the Green Door created their own genre: porno chic, X-rated films that had plots, characters, and production values that extended beyond a camera, some lights, and a motel room. European "art films" were also part of this wave, most notably Emmanuelle.
Claude Pierson's Justine de Sade was made in 1972 but not released in the United States until 1976. It certainly deserved its X rating, but this is not a hardcore sex film. It's an adaptation of a controversial work of literature, the Marquis de Sade's Justine.
Facts of the Case
She calls herself Therese, and when we first see her, in late 18th century France, she is being escorted to prison for a variety of crimes. At a stopover at an inn, she meets Juliette, who is intrigued by the girl and asks to hear her tale of woe.
Whoa, what a tale it is! All poor Therese wants is some simple employment and to keep her virtue, but the poor thing can't have a cup of tea without being brutalized.
Therese meets people from all walks of life, and she has the same effect on all of them: They rip her clothes off and abuse her. Happily, it's very egalitarian. You don't have to be rich to beat our girl, and she is mistreated by wealthy landowners, monks, bandits, and folks just passing through. Her introduction is the same to everyone: "I am but a poor orphan girl." She's hoping this will cause strangers to show her a little understanding and respect her virtue, but instead, it's an "Open Sesame" to depravity. You'd think she'd catch on after the third or fourth time and change her line to something a little less enticing, like, "I am but a poor syphilitic," but no dice.
As the story goes on, the perversions pile up, but Therese never loses her belief that righteousness is the key to her salvation.
Justine de Sade is a tricky movie. It's very well shot, has nice period costumes and locations and tons of dialogue. It's also pretty much one abomination after another. It's disturbing watching the torments endured by poor Therese until you realize:
This is a satire.
Therese isn't so much an innocent as an idiot. She's a moralistic prig with no common sense.
Therese's virtue is her downfall. It's not only her desire to remain "pure," but her insistence on doing good. Unfortunately, in de Sade's world, every good deed goes punished, in a big way. She is raped, beaten, branded, tortured, sodomized, cut, hung, degraded, smacked around, burned…I'm sure I'm forgetting a misfortune or two, but (the movie argues) she brings these miseries on herself by trying to do the right thing. When she saves a woman from being poisoned, she gets tied to a tree, and a pack of dogs is sicced on her, making Kibbles 'n' Bits out of her buttocks. She goes to a monastery to confess her sins and encounters a group of horny monks who keep girls in sexual servitude.
Throughout, she is admonished by other characters—often in long, florid speeches—espousing de Sade's philosophies about the stupidity of virtuous beliefs, the weakness of women, and the upside to being a libertine. When she tries to argue in favor of virtue, she is shot down with her oppressors' seemingly logical worldview. She rescues a man who has been beaten nearly to death, and he takes her to his castle, which is a den of male thieves and female slaves. She pleads for her freedom, saying that since she saved his life, he should take pity on her. He points out that she chose to save him, and that her choice gave her pleasure—"You were simply yielding to an enjoyable urge"—so he owes her no mercy.
Her final indignation comes from a wholly unexpected source and provides an ending that is both bitterly cynical and strangely hilarious.
As Therese, "art film" actress Alice Arno (Tender and Perverse Emanuelle) is very pretty and surprisingly funny. Check out her earnest description of a heroic act of oral sex she performs around the 90 minute mark.
There's not much in the way of extras on this disc. A deleted scene is just an unused "prologue" featuring some historic-looking s&m drawings. An "alternative" scene shows an orgy with the monks, only this time the women are fully clothed. There is a French trailer with subtitles, though it's mainly Arno shrieking and screaming, "No!," so the subtitles are not necessary, and an English trailer (calling it The Violation of Justine) that warns us about the depravities that await.
The picture looks a little soft and grainy, but not terrible for a 35-year-old film. There are two mono audio tracks, the original French and an English dub. The dubbing here is alright, not great, and the dub track sounds a little hollow. The subtitles are big and bright and yellow, easy to read, though they do flash by pretty quickly in this dialogue-heavy film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It took me a while to warm up to this one. Even viewing this as one big philosophical joke, there are some pretty harrowing scenes of our heroine being abused. While there's plenty of sex, none of it is particularly erotic since it's all doled out as punishment. It's more Mark of the Devil than Story of "O". There is no male nudity or "penetration" and surprisingly little full-frontal female nudity, though the sordid activities more than earned this its original X rating.
By the way, you'll have to stick it out until the end to find out why the film is named Justine. It seems like there is a piece missing from the beginning that would help this bit of business make sense.
Justine de Sade is not going to be everyone's taste. It's a film of corrupt ideas wrapped in an awfully politically incorrect package.
I'm giving Justine de Sade a qualified recommendation. If you've a mind for something different, difficult, disturbing, and pervesely funny, give this one a look.
I'm letting you off this time, but don't let it happen again!
Big girls don't cry, Therese…and I think you've been naughty again. Come see me in chambers.
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