One of a seemingly endless barrage of adaptations of the Marquis de Sade's Justine, Chris Boger's 1977 film, also known as Cruel Passion (which is the title that appears on the print used for this Blu-ray release), takes a mature and almost subdued approach to this well known tale of perversions and sexual excess.
The film follows two sisters, Justine (Koo Stark) and Juliette (Lydia Lisle) Jerome, whose parents die young and leave them alone and seemingly helpless. They at first take shelter in an orphanage run by nuns but when their inheritance dries up, the nuns send them on their way. While Justine tries to abide by her moral upbringing and live a pure, chaste life her sister is far more willing to explore the ways of the flesh and indulge in all that the world has to offer her...
Not nearly as sexually twisted as the hyperbole on the cover and box copy would have you believe, Boger's Justine is an interesting take on the source material. Rather than focus on one shocking or exploitative scene of sexual depravity after the next, the film leaves much to the imagination and instead infers more than it blatantly portrays. That's not to say there isn't a fair amount of skin on display in the film, because there is, but it doesn't seem quite as gratuitous as it does in other, similar films. This gives the film room to explore character development and motivation and focus on the performances of its two female leads, Koo Stark and Lydia Lisle. Stark (who pops up in the background of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is excellent as the morally conflicted but well meaning Justine while Lisle proves every inch her equal as the far less restrained Juliette. Both actresses do very good work here with some occasionally iffy material, with Stark really exuding an impressive screen presence and making the character her own. Their interplay with supporting actors like Martin Potter as Juliette's beau, Lord Carlisle, and Maggie Peterson as the predictably dour Mother Superior is handled well and proves to be the backbone of the film.
The film does play towards a few nunsploitaiton clichés, the most obvious being the lecherous Mother Superior character out to taste young female flesh and the rape of Justine at the hands of an equally lecherous pastor, but it's all played effectively straight. Where similar films take things to such an extreme that you can't take them seriously, Boger's picture has a more cerebral quality to it. The film loses us a bit in just how naïve Justine is at times - she falls victim so many times in the film that you have to think she'd start to wise up sooner or later when she never really does, but aside from that the script is fairly strong. The film is intentionally dark, not surprising given the writing that it is based on, but it's hard to fault it on a technical level.
Beautifully photographed by cinematographers Roger Deakins (who has gone on to work with the Cohen Brothers, M. Night Shyamalan, and Andrew Dominik to name only a few) Justine is a gorgeous looking film that features some stunning camera work and memorable imagery. The film also makes great use of some very effective locations, meaning that the interiors of the various buildings used feel appropriately seedy when they need to, and at other times fairly regal. The exteriors are also very effective, particularly in the latter half of the film where some key scenes occur out of doors - it's all very convincing in its period look. Coupled with an evocative and emotionally stirring score the film winds up to be less an exercise in Sadean exploitation than a serious exploration of a woman's moral conflict. It's a well made picture to be sure, which makes it all the more puzzling that the film's director didn't go on to a bigger career in feature filmmaking.
Justine debuts on Blu-ray from Kino/Redemption in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition widescreen transfer that offers a healthy bit rate hovering around the 30MBps zone. Detail is quite a bit improved over the previous standard definition release as is texture and you'll notice this both in close up shots and in medium shots as well. More cleanup work probably could have been done on the picture, so expect mild print damage throughout, especially in the first few minutes, but there isn't any evidence of heavy noise reduction, edge enhancement or other digital tinkering. Skin tones look pretty decent, colors are reproduced quite nicely and all in all the image looks pretty good.
The only audio option offered on the disc is an English language LPCM 2.0 Mono track but it sounds alright. Range and fidelity are limited by the source materials available so don't expect blood from a stone here but dialogue is generally crisp, clear and easy to understand while the levels remain properly balanced. Super attentive viewers might notice the odd pop here and there but aside from that, if things don't sound amazing they sound perfectly fine.
The primary extras on this release are an interview with director Chris Boger (5:30) and an interview with writer Ian Cullen (18:33), both carried over from the previous DVD release. Boger's interview is a little brief but it's interesting to hear him discuss his work on the picture. Cullen's interview is considerably more substantial and therefore a fair bit more interesting as he talks about the intricacies of adapting the work of the Marquis de Sade and about how he feels about his script decades since the picture was made. Between the two interviews we're given quite a bit of background information on the picture and both segments are well worth watching.
Rounding out the extra features are a small still gallery, two alternate opening credits sequences, a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Kino/Redemption Blu-ray releases, static menus and chapter selection.
A mature and surprisingly artsy approach to one of de Sade's best known works, Justine gets a nice release from Redemption. If the Blu-ray doesn't offer a whole lot more than the previous DVD release did in the extra features department, the improvements in the audio and video departments should please fans of the film. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.