Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Justine (2016)

“Justine, your prison was my kingdom come.” -Virgin Steele 

Were it not for Jess Franco, I probably would not have had even a passing interest in the writings of eighteenth century troublemaker Marquis de Sade, Donatien Alphonse Franҫois, but thanks to Franco films like Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1969), Eugenie (1970), Eugenie de Sade (1973), and this prominent S&M aesthetic very much characteristic to a lot of Franco’s films (as well as Renato Polselli’s), it was only a matter of time before I would wonder: “why the hell am I not reading de Sade?”. Reading a book by de Sade had been on my bucket list for a good six or seven years. (It didn’t help that I was partially turned off by de Sade after watching Pier Paolo Passolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) due to the film’s shocking depictions of cruelty and grossness that the Jess Franco films rarely reached). 

Well, I finally read my first de Sade novel, recently, titled Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and it was all kinds of fucked up. It was cruel, disgusting, evil, sickeningly disagreeable… And I could hardly put it down. I won’t go as far as to call it a horror novel, but a lot of the sadists poor Justine encounters are outright terrifying, especially the head-cutter character. De Sade seemed to pull no punches. He morally outraged to the extreme and probably intended to.


While reading Justine, I would always hope for the perpetually imprisoned and tortured Justine to get saved by someone (or at least administer some serious payback, rape-revenge style), but there are absolutely no heroes in this tale, and whenever a faint hope or relief presents itself, Justine is always thrown right back into another wretched situation, almost always managing to top the one before it in cruelty and harshness. Justine is de Sade’s creation to relentlessly torture physically as well as intellectually for her steadfast loyalty to virtue and religion, as de Sade’s sadistic libertine villains tended to debate with Justine and give long winded manifesto-like speeches generally in support of the story’s atheistic thesis involving the innateness of evil in nature and providence rewarding vice and punishing virtue in a corrupt and godless world. I was starting to worry a little that the book might be desensitizing me and tapping into a heretofore unrealized evil side to myself. To counteract this, I felt I should instead try reading something with heroes in it or something that goes in a complete opposite masochistic direction like Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870).


The movie Quills (2000), with Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, helped me understand a little more about what it was that I liked about de Sade. I admire the way he didn’t hold back as a writer in the eighteenth century who could shock and appall more than any other writer that I’m familiar with. I feel his writing exposes a certain truth that lurks beneath society. De Sade chose to expose the beast rather than forget about it. I can’t help thinking that the socially powerful sadists in de Sade’s stories are the same kind of people who would feign morality to the public and who would likewise persecute de Sade and his writing on the pretext of indecency, when really it was because he was exposing them. He also happened to have been a really good writer.


Like many enduring works of literature, Justine has been adapted to the screen more than once. The aforementioned Marquis de Sade’s Justine, with Romina Power as Justine, is a good Jess Franco film that brings an interesting angle to the story by framing it around Marquis de Sade (played by Klaus Kinski) writing the story from prison and being haunted in a way by Justine. This version is also notable for Jack Palance’s batshit insane portrayal of Antonin, a leader of a brotherhood of monks who pursue pleasure above all things. Justine de Sade from 1972, with Alice Arno as Justine, is an impressively faithful adaptation, in that it somehow manages to squeeze almost the entire book near-verbatim into its one-hour and fifty-five-minute run time. Cruel Passions, with Koo Stark as Justine, from 1977 modifies the story while also remaining faithful to the spirit of de Sade’s writing and really does a nice job at building new ideas from the book. Among all of the classic literary figures making an appearance in the deliciously gothic TV series Penny Dreadful, Justine, played by Jessica Barden, makes an exciting appearance in season 3, and it’s a very different take, where Justine eventually gives in to vice and starts to resemble more her corrupt murderess sister Juliette. (de Sade also wrote a massively epic book, based on Justine’s sister, Juliette (1797) that surpasses The Lord of the Rings trilogy in length).



There is a Bolivian Justine film from 2016 written, directed, edited, and co-produced by Jac Avila who also stars in it as the sadist Rodin. Avila’s Justine nearly escaped my notice since it never came up when I was searching for Justine films online. I accidentally came across the trailer on YouTube. I was sold on the trailer and the tagline “A FILM MORE SADISTIC THAN DE SADE HIMSELF”, a tagline that unfortunately is not true (it’s sadistic but does not dethrone the master), but this version does give us a terrific Justine, played by Amy Hesketh who also co-produced the film.

Avila’s Justine seems to me to meld de Sade’s Justine with The Passion of the Christ (2004) and commits wholly to the sadism element by mostly being a collection of prolonged torture sequences that are convincing and hard to watch. This does also inevitably result in a certain level of monotony at times, but the sets are always so creative and interesting, and the performances are so spirited, that this ends up being forgivable. In fact, it’s a little like watching a Jess Franco film at times (that’s a good thing here), with how hypnotic some of the prolonged, repetitious nude torture scenes can be. The dungeon torture scene to Jean Rollin’s Requiem for a Vampire (1971) also comes to mind.



The proceedings are off to an especially unnerving and brutal start with the wrongfully convicted Justine being tied up and publicly punished with fifty lashes of the executioner’s cat o' nine tails whip that are counted off one by one by an aristocratic audience over a very dramatic and doomy theme composed by Kevin Hatton, and it is a slow and painful fifty lashes. At around the thirty-sixth lash, Justine passes out from the pain. Seeing this, the executioner wakes her with a rudely administered splash of water to her face before recommencing the punishment. The film maintains this unpleasant tone throughout its duration without ever really letting up.


One of the aristocrats viewing Justine’s punishment from the crowd is Justine’s sister Juliette (Cortney Willis), although neither one of them realizes it yet (they were separated when they were very young after their parents died). While Justine is publicly displayed in a pillory, she recounts to Juliette her misfortunate life and how she came to her present situation. During the flashback/backstory scenes, Justine will frequently stop what she is doing to look into the camera and narrate to viewers. I had mixed feelings on this at first since the peculiar narrative technique kind of took me out of it and would seem a little unintentionally funny or even almost a little cute at times. But it’s also appropriate since, like in the book, Justine is telling the story to her sister. I got used to it and grew to love it on re-watches.


The dungeon torture set piece involving a spinning wheel gets a lot of play. Justine and her fellow captive maidens, Rosalie (Mila Joya) and Omphale (Beatriz Rivera), each get a turn to be spun on the wheel-of-torture while being whipped by Rodin, which does kind of feel like repetitive padding at times. It’s a cool idea, but it might’ve been milked too much here. I did really like the innovative Argento-like camera work, where a camera is attached to the spinning wheel for a really cool effect. It also looked like a lot of fun for the actors. (There are a couple behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube of everyone having a blast while testing out the wheel.)


Amy Hesketh gives it her all as Justine, particularly during the torture scenes. She is so good at showing emotion. With each crack of the whip, her screams and cries effectively sell a sense of legitimate pain and anguish to viewers. Her facial expressions also portray the fear and misery that would be required for a character with as wretched of an existence as Justine. (Note: Amy Hesketh is also a producer, director, and writer who has made a number of interesting looking horror films with Jac Avila, such as Bluebeard (2012), Dead but Dreaming (2013), and Olalla (2015), that I’m interested in checking out).


The actors playing Rosalie (Joya) and Omphale (Rivera) also gracefully act the hell out of their roles as tortured and wrongfully persecuted prisoners of Rodin alongside Justine. Between torture sessions the three women provide bedside comfort to one another in order to recover enough before the libertine monster they serve puts them through the gamut of torment and abuse all over again. They form a certain kinship, like sisters who are in it together.

Jac Avila’s portrayal of Rodin is kind of how I envisioned him in the book: very cold, straight-faced, and libertine. He also acts like a teacher to Justine, explaining his thoughts and meanings behind the torture sessions.


Jac Avila’s Justine does have a few unique directions while essentially recounting the central story of de Sade’s Justine but focusing less on de Sade’s heavy contrast of vice and virtue in favor of a passion play and relating pain and punishment more to biblical themes, with a female Christ who is suffering and dying for nothing (aside from her tormentors' amusement). 

A lot of episodes from the book are essentially condensed down to Rodin’s torture dungeon in this film, with Rodin himself pretty much personifying the plethora of rapists and libertine scoundrels poor Justine has to deal with throughout the book. Avila creates his own torture scenarios, recreating very little from the book, relishing heavily in repetitive whip lashing and realistic skin markings. Nude figures full of gashed and marked up skin is a major motif here.



As someone just coming off of the book, I found Avila’s Justine to be a worthwhile experience filled with disturbing violent imagery that also in its own way manages to be beautiful, particularly in the way it is framed and filmed by cinematographer Miguel Inti Canedo and edited by Avila. Plus, it is nice to have a modern Justine film to round out the collection of available Justine films, which are mostly from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even though the movie is chock-full of de Sadean torture, once you get accustomed to it, you’ll notice there’s also something kind of hypnotic and moody about it, which might have a lot to do with Hatton’s mind-altering soundtrack. It can be an enlightening experience, but more for those who might understand de Sade more, otherwise you’ll likely wonder what the fuck this shit is you’re watching. 

© At the Mansion of Madness



     

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