Color, 1969, 124 mins. 12 secs. / 95 mins. 41 secs.
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring Romina Power, Maria Rohm, Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge, Klaus Kinski, Sylva Koscina, Rosemary Dexter, Carmen de Lirio, Akim Tamiroff, Horst Frank
Blue Underground (UHD, Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 4K/HD/NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
The career of the incredibly prolific Jess Franco might have gone very differently without this lavish, big-budget adaptation of one of the most famous (and longest) novels by the notorious Marquis de Sade, Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Presumably timed to cash in on AIP's sprawling and ultimately doomed X-rated, all-star1969 biopic, De Sade, this was the most ambitious project from the team of Franco and producer Harry Alan Towers, who also turned out such titles as Venus in Furs, 99 Women, and The Castle of Fu Manchu. More notably, this also laid the groundwork for a far more daring and experimental de Sade adaptation from the same pair, Eugenie... the Story of Her Journey into Perversion, which brought the source material into the present day. Here the de Sade bio influence comes in right at the start as Klaus Kinski (who has zero dialogue) is seen as the legendary Marquis being led into the Bastille, where he's imprisoned for obscenity but still commits his extreme(ish) visions to paper.
In this case, his inspiration is the characters in our story of two orphaned sisters, innocent and naive Justine (Power, daughter of Tyrone) and the more jaded, self-sufficient Juliette (Rohm, Towers's girlfriend at the time and future wife), who are turned out of the convent where they've been schooled when their family funds run dry under scandalous circumstances. With only a single allowance each left in their possession, they're turned out into the streets of some European city that looks a lot like Spain but uses crowns as currency. Virtually everyone they run into is either a schemer or a criminal (or both) starting with an early encounter at a brothel where Juliette fits in just fine and strikes up a rapport with a lesbian named Claudine (Dexter). Meanwhile poor Justine zigzags from one predator to another including a deliciously ripe turn by Mercedes McCambridge as opportunistic career criminal Madame Dusbois and a weird one by Akim Tamiroff in a glorified cameo as a colorful innkeeper. However, that's nothing compared to her third act plunge into a sex cult complete with an insane turn by Jack Palance as the debauched Antonin, chewing scenery on a level you never dreamed possible.
This wasn't the first screen adaptation of the novel (that would be Roger Vadim's WWII-updated version, Vice and Virtue), nor would it be the last with '70s sexploitation variants like Justine de Sade, Cruel Passion, and Justine and Juliette still to come. However, it's easily the closest thing to a respectable adaptation we've seen and comes complete with a wild cast that also includes regular Eurocult vets Sylva Koscina and Horst Frank as well as smaller parts for Rosalba Neri and Franco mascot Howard Vernon. The period setting seems to have stifled Franco a bit since he keeps the sex and violence more in check than you'd expect, with the participation of Power (who was forced on him) likely a factor as well.
However, there are still some unmistakable Franco flourishes like the prison sequences (complete with vivid, colorful lighting and dreamy shots of blood streaming on flesh), lots of wide angle shots and zoom ins, and strange dashes of humor with McCambridge in particular on the right wavelength. Rohm is underused as Juliette, and it's a shame the sisters' fates from the novels are altered so drastically here; it would've been fun to see her act out the original finale, though in a sense she did in the uncensored version of The Bloody Judge the following year. It's definitely not a film for Franco newbies, but there's enough entertainment value and weirdness here to make it worth a look as the first of many Franco Sadean stabs, some officially and others only in spirit (with the superb Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun feeling like a more refined take on the material here).
Ironically, AIP wound up releasing this film in the United States in 1970 with its running time slimmed down to 95 minutes; the subsequent VHS from Monterey in the '80s was edited even further by nearly ten minutes under the title Deadly Sanctuary, a release that hardly did Franco's reputation any favors. The complete original cut finally surfaced on DVD from Blue Underground in 2002, with a more elaborate HD upgrade in 2015 featuring a Blu-ray, DVD, and CD soundtrack (which weirdly contains 24 tracks, putting it somewhere between the original Edi-pan LP/CD edition and the expanded Digitmovies release). Derived from a new 4K scan from the original negative, the transfer looks very nice with hallucinatory colors that pop through with more intensity than the older SD release and an appreciable increase in detail levels in every single shot. A really nice job all around. The original English audio (everyone spoke English, more or less, but some of the dubbed voices are very odd) is presented in DTS-HD MA mono with optional English SHD, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Carried over from the prior DVD are the French trailer (entitled The Misfortunes of Virtue) and a 20m3s featurette, "The Perils and Pleasures of Justine," with Towers and the always entertaining Franco recalling the making of the film including the not-terribly-surprising revelation that Palance was perpetually loaded during the production. The famously difficult Kinski gets a nod, too, though he would return to Franco country later in Jack the Ripper. Franco also grouses quite a bit about Power, though her lack of acting experience isn't enough to derail the production. At least she looks the part and gets through it all without humiliating herself, especially pitted against so many colorful cast members during her cinematic journey. New to this release are an updated HD gallery of posters and stills and, more significantly, a 17m35s video piece about the film by Stephen Thrower, author of Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco (whose chapter is adapted here into a liner notes booklet). As always he's eloquent and informative as he runs through the film's rewards and shortcomings in equal measure while appraising its value as a de Sade adaptation and putting it in context within the astonishing Franco/Towers period.
In 2023, Blue Underground paid Justine another visit as a two-set set featuring a UHD and a remastered Blu-ray taken from a new 4K remaster from the original negative. The improvements are apparent right out of the gate (especially with the incredibly rich look of the UHD thanks to the HDR grading) as flesh tones look healthier, the stylized green and red lighting pops more than before, and the film grain is more organic and tightly resolved. The English DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono audio track is in great shape and comes with optional English SDH or French subtitles. Both the UHD and Blu-ray feature the French trailer as well as a new commentary by Troy Howarth and yours truly, which can't be appraised here. Both prior featurettes are carried over here on the Blu-ray, plus an expanded gallery of international posters and stills. New here is the 8m17s "On Set with Jess" featuring Rosalba Neri looking back fondly at her time with Franco, including anecdotes from this and 99 Women with particular thoughts on co-stars like Power, Palance, and Luciana Paluzzi. In a very welcome touch, they've also included an HD reconstruction of the 95-minute Deadly Sanctuary cut. It's fun to revisit this variant as it moves quite a bit faster, retaining the more sordid bits but getting our poor heroine through her kinky obstacles a lot more speedily in a way more appealing to exploitation audiences of the day.
Updated review on February 4, 2023.