Directed By: Chris Boger
Starring: Koo Stark, Martin Potter, Lydia Lisle
Tag line: "No woman suffered more..."
Trivia: This movie was also released as Cruel Passion
An 18th century writer who turned sexual excess into an art form, the Marquis de Sade was a controversial figure in his time, and it’s safe to assume that a movie based on his writings would be equally as scandalous. Director Chris Boger’s 1977 film Marquis de Sade’s Justine certainly lives up to it's author's reputation; it is, indeed, scandalous, and more besides.
Inspired by the 1791 novel Justine: The Misfortunes of Virtue, Marquis de Sade’s Justine (also released as Cruel Passion) relates the sad tale of two sisters: Juliette (Lydia Lisle) and Justine (Koo Stark), who, following the death of their parents, are forced to leave the convent they’ve called home for most of their lives. With very little money between them, the sisters head to London to visit their cousin Pauline (Ann Michelle), who works as a prostitute in a brothel owned and operated by Madame Laronde (Katherine Kath). Realizing her options are limited, Juliette decides to join Pauline and become a prostitute, while the more virtuous Justine, disgusted by the scandal of it all, makes her way back to the small town where the convent is situated, asking the pastor of the local church (Louis Ife) for sanctuary. Alas, not even the clergy can be trusted, and when the pastor attempts to rape her, Justine rushes to the roof to escape him. The Pastor gives chase, but falls to his death when he loses his footing.
Now wanted for murder, Justine hides out with a band of criminals led by Mrs. Bonny (Hope Jackman), who force the girl to join their operation. Meanwhile, Juliette, fearing for her sister’s safety, asks her lover, Lord Carlisle (Martin Potter), to track down Justine and bring her back to London. Carlisle does eventually find her, but is himself captured by Mrs. Bonny’s crew. Will Justine and Lord Carlisle escape the clutches of these dangerous criminals, or is it the end of the road for them both?
While the movie does shy away from graphic depictions of sex and barbarity, Marquis de Sade’s Justine still manages to astound and appall with some fairly intense material, including rape, S&M, and necrophilia. In addition, there’s plenty of nudity, and a few lesbian encounters early on in the convent, where Juliette would satisfy the carnal desires of Sister Clare (Malou Cartwright) on a nightly basis. The film is also quite violent; the scene in which Mrs. Bonny and her henchmen rob a stagecoach is troubling, to say the least. Still, not all of the depravity is designed to horrify the audience; in one lengthy sequence, Mme Laronde, Pauline, and a few of the other prostitutes take great pleasure in showing Juliette the ropes, each having their turn with the house’s “boy toy”, George (Barry McGinn), before letting Juliette “finish him off”. Played mostly for laughs, this scene manages to be sexy without taking things too far.
Yet even more revealing than the nudity and blood is the film’s basic message that a life of iniquity has its advantages over chastity and virtue. We see it in the way director Boger presents each sequence, flooding Mme Laronde’s brothel with plenty of light-to make it feel warm and inviting, while in turn keeping the religious institutions (the convent and pastor’s home) dark and ominous (the cinematographer was future Oscar winner Roger Deakins, working on what would be his first dramatic film, and even at this early stage of his career Mr. Deakins’ talent was on full display). The sisters themselves are also proof positive that “sin” is sometimes preferable to “saintliness” (Juliette becomes a whore and lives comfortably, while poor Justine follows the path of righteousness and is tormented at every turn).
It’s not the sort of message you’d find in an average film, but with a story that jumped from the pen of the Marquis de Sade as a starting point, it would have been foolish to expect anything else. Marquis de Sade’s Justine is not for those who are easily offended, but as sleazy exploitation films go, it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen.