Marquis de Sade: Justine (1969) Directed by Jess Franco
Jess Franco’s exploitative erotica has never been my cup of tea, and although I think his salacious eccentricities are idiosyncratically poetic rather than conventionally prosaic, his style is too sensationalist and fanciful to be thoroughly palatable. In 1969 the prolific Spanish director helmed this adaptation of Marquis de Sade’s scandalous 1719 novel about the misfortunes of a pristine, helpless teenage girl in a kinky pre-French Revolution society. A bewildered Romina Power plays the beautiful Justine – Power’s performance is sustained more by her physical beauty than acting prowess – an innocent girl who, after being orphaned, she and her sister Juliette (Maria Rohm) go their separate ways seeking prosperity and a new beginning; Juliette opts for a life of prostitution and crime, Justine retains her virtues and purity despite the depravities she encounters. The structure is bizarre, the film proclaims itself to be the filmic version of Sade’s literature and yet there is very little of the disruptive sadist philosophy in its more libertine passages, it is more a menagerie of softcore mini-narratives than an attempt at a cinematic adaptation. Klaus Kinski has the honor of playing the Marquis de Sade – he appears incarcerated writing the story – and while his participation is aptly delirious, it is more of a superfluity than a necessity. Ultimately, what remains to be appreciated is more the enormity of its production design than the overall aesthetic itself – aside from Jack Palance’s sublime performance as a hedonistic monk – Jess Franco never seems to fully grasp the degenerate but sophisticated commentary on Sade’s work; he turns it into parable, which to me seems analogous to vandalizing it.