Saturday, 25 February 2012



How many versions of the Marquis De Sade's rambling parade of abuse, rape, humiliation, torture, rape, degradation, exploitation and rape are there? Cruel Passion was only really interesting for starring Koo Stark, who came within a gnat's codpiece of becoming British royalty (on which occasion the BBC showed footage of her topless in Emily on the Nine O'Clock News!), and then there was the ludicrously overlong Jess Franco version which included not only Klaus Kinski rambling as the mad Marquis but also a magnificently overacting (as in thoroughly pissed) Jack Palance.

Perversely, given my dislike of sexual violence on screen, I dislike the Franco version of Justine less than I really should. It's easily the best version of the dubious story that I've seen, and that includes this 1972 incarnation which is mainly notable for an astonishing verbosity. Justine De Sade (which meaninglessly bolts the author's surname onto the title in the manner of Moonraker Fleming or Dracula Stoker) again details the horrible travails and miseries of an innocent young girl trying to guard her honour in a world full of perverts, lechers and libertines. Be they woodland bandits, landed gentry, village doctors or Benedictine monks, just about every man in the story is a despicable and misogynistic turd whose sole aim is their own repugnant gratification.

Much of Claude Pierson's film is incredibly wordy: it appears that the bulk of the screenplay is less an adaptation of De Sade's book than a straightforward transcription. The English translation of the original text is available free online; I haven't read it all but have skimmed through it and in places it's word for word. It's not entirely accurate, however: De Sade includes mention of girls aged ten, but there's no-one that young in the film for obvious reasons. And Justine herself is supposed to be fourteen but with the best will in the world, Alice Arno is still 26. (Sorry to be ungallant, but nor is poor little Justine supposed to be beefy enough for Harlequins' front row.)

It really isn't any good: it's a standard 1970s Europlod through wobbly bums and dubbed English dialogue (oddly, there are half a dozen sequences where it suddenly turns into the original French with subtitles, which at least suggests the distributors have put together the longest possible version of the film), and it has a genuinely surprising double ending, one absurdly happy, one absurdly tragic, and both of which are in the De Sade original. Really, it's such an unappetising and queasy story (if you believe Wikipedia, Napoleon himself referred to it as "the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination") that any faithful cinema version is going to feel similarly ugly. Strange as it sounds, the Jess Franco version is the best bet, which is pretty shocking: how lousy does a film have to be for a fair to middling Jess Franco take on the same subject to be a substantial improvement?


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