Of all the film maudit directors—Herschell Gordon Lewis, Fred Olen Ray, Ed Wood among them—none is more maudit than Jesse Franco. A Spanish director now in his feisty 70s, Franco has made an estimated 140 films under an orgy of pseudonyms. He has one of the most complex and confusing filmographies in cinema history. Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog, for whom Franco is something of a hero, has been mining the gravel quarry of Franco's career for years, culminating in the indispensable 1992 book Obsession: The Films of Jesse Franco (Selbstverlag Frank Trebbin, 255 pages, ISBN 3 929234 05 X), but at least one reader has the distinct feeling that, thorough as the book is, the story still isn't fully told.
The relatively new DVD distributor Blue Underground has made a cunning choice from Franco's oeuvre in selecting Justine for release on DVD. One of Franco's more coherent films, Justine is also almost epical, with an all-star cast that includes Akim Tamiroff, Jack Palance, Maria Rohm, Mercedes McCambridge, Klaus Kinski, and Howard Vernon, and with its picaresque, Candide-like tale of a young woman's adventures in a corrupt society. You know you are in the midst of an unusually well-funded Franco film when there's a mammoth street scene featuring fruit stands, strongmen, and dancing monkeys. (More information can be unearthed about Blue Underground at its web site).
The film begins with De Sade (Kinski) carted off to jail. In his cell he writhes about like a caged animal and has visions of women in chains (Kinski's scenes took either one morning or two days, depending on who's telling the story). Then he begins to set down the story of Justine (Romina Power, who bears a vague resemblance to Jennifer Connelly) and her sister Juliette (Rohm). Sisters, they are thrown out of convent school and find themselves on different career paths. Juliette joins a brothel where she conspires with a Sapphic buddy (Rosemary Dexter, originally slated for the Justine role) to kill off the Madame. Eventually she ends up the consort of a wealthy aristocrat and government official, thus proving the film's theme (or its fear) that, as enunciated by the title character, "It's only the wicked who prosper" (and, adds Justine, "I think that if I'm allow to live, I intend to change my ways"). Justine, meanwhile, first goes to work for a decrepit fellow (Tamiroff), is arrested for thievery and is set to be hanged before unwillingly making her escape with a female gang leader (McCambridge). Then she ends up with a supportive and romantic painter to whom she is tracked down by the police. A stint as a handmaiden to a jodhpur and riding booted lady aristo (Sylvia Koscina, I think), playing Tony Curtis to the horsewoman's Laurence Olivier, and a period in the clutches of an insane monk (Palance) who tortures a clutch of women for the amusement of his order (in a kind of mini Salo) round out her escapades. The narrative shows a curious similarity to Polanski's more straight-faced Hardy adaptation Tess.
Franco originally wanted Dexter for the role of Justine but Power, the daughter of Tyrone Power, was foisted upon him by AIP, one of the film's backers. The seemingly brain dead Power, who never seems to have quite the right expression on her face, and virtually cracks up under the influence of Jack Palance's antics, proved unable to embody Franco's point, that Justine eventually comes to enjoy her suffering and turns truly masochistic, like a character out of Anne Rice's Roquelaure novels.
De Sade as both a real person and a film character is more fascinating to the French, who intellectualize him as a rebel-philosopher and social critic, than to Americans, who marginalize him as a dissipated pervert. A surprisingly varied array of thespians have played de Sade, from Geoffrey Rush in Quills to Bobby Young in The Erotic House of Wax, from Daniel Auteuil in The Skull of Pain to Keir Dullea in De Sade, from Patrick Magee in the adaptation of Peter Weiss's play to French singer and songwriter Serge Gainsbourg in the 1967 TV movie called Valmy. Edmund Wilson exploded the Sade cult 40 years ago, in a 1952 essay called "The Vogue of the Marquis de Sade" (reprinted in his book The Bit Between My Teeth) in which he asked, in response to Sade's celebration of transgression against human law, "Are not our moral and legal codes also the product of natural instincts? But it was difficult still in [Sade's] age to conceive of man as an animal with certain superior faculties, in the light of which he tries to discipline his so diverse natural instincts for purposes he strongly feels but is unable to formulate definitively…the utopians of the eighteenth century were eventually to have their complement in the cynical practicality of Napoleon." For practical minded Americans, there is paradoxically too much philosophy in Sade's books and not enough sex.
VIDEO: The visuals for this disc are splendid, and unexpectedly clean for a film almost 35 years old. The only flaws in the 1.66:1 image (enhanced for wide screen televisions) are those found in the kind of photography prevalent in the late '60s, which includes lots of glaring lighting on boldly colored scenery. In one particularly strange shot, Palance passes down a walk-ways, in one of the two structures built by Gaudi that are used as locations in the film, like a fleshy piece of statuary pulled through a corridor, an odd precursor to Spike Lee's favorite way of shooting people walking down a street.
SOUND: The Dolby Digital mono sometimes can't keep of with the lush music by Morricone-disciple Bruno Nicolai is phenomenal. It can sound a little shredded at times. But like that other cult film Scream and Scream Again which had its score restored for DVD release recently by MGM, Blue Underground seems to have served well fans of Nicolai's score for the film.
MENUS: The static, musical menus contain 27 chapter scene selection for the two hour and four minute movie.
PACKAGING: The keep case features an enticing image of Power manacle to a wall, while the back cover shows Palance and Power in a clutch. The label has a collage of stills in two tone red. Inside the box is a four page booklet with a lengthy and detailed essay by Tim Lucas, which tells you everything you need to know to enjoy the film.
EXTRAS: Supplements are reasonably plentiful for such an obscure film. The extras start off with The Perils and Pleasures of Justine, a 20 minute retrospective "making of" doc, featuring many quotes from a gap-toothed, foul mouthed Jesse Franco. The fact that he is cursing in French makes his irascibility more charming. Franco is remarkably and pleasingly candid about the shoot, revealing such gossipy facts as that lead Power arrived with both a man and a woman in tow: her mother and an Italian "prick" who was either the mother's or the daughter's boyfriend, or both; Franco could never figure it out. Franco also adds that Palance was fun to work with but drunk the whole time.
Also on hand in the doc is the film's producer, a British guy named Harry Alan Towers, who sounds like a pseudonym but turns out to be real.
Further supplements include a just-under-30 screen selection of stills and publicity shots, the French trailer, and a 22-screen biography written by the highly sympathetic Perry Martin.
Final Thoughts: Marquis de Sade's Justine is for specialized tastes, of course, but explorers of the maudit will find a surprisingly erudite account of Sade within this film.