Saturday, December 6, 2008
A flawed but interesting production from Led Zeppelin live video director Chris Boger, 1977's Justine is mainly noteworthy for its lovely photography from future Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deacons and a sublimely smashing lead performance from controversial Koo Stark.
First time director Boger admits in his interview accompanying Redemption's new special edition DVD of the film that he had long wanted to film a De Sade adaptation, and that he had in fact been reading the notorious writer's work since he was a teenager.
De Sade’s legendary works involving the doomed young maiden Justine have been adapted on several occasions, with Jess Franco’s 1969’s version probably being the finest. While Boger’s very loose adaptation of De Sade’s work doesn’t have the hypnotic hysteria found in Franco’s film, it still is worth a look for fans of the writers or of the notorious ‘nunsploitation’ sub-genre that appeared in the early seventies and flourished up until the early part of the eighties.
Screenwriter Ian Cullen, who appears in Redemption’s best extra in a near twenty minute interview where he admits moral difficulties with the production, had worked in British television mostly before this production. His script centers on two young sisters named Justine (Stark) and Juliette (Lydia Lisle) who are being sexually abused and manipulated at a British nunnery as the film opens. They soon make their escape only to find more corruptible forces awaiting them at nearly every turn. We watch as Juliette chooses a life of vice while Justine tries to hold onto some semblance of virtue before the film’s bitter and rather shocking climax unfolds before us.
Nowhere near as exploitative as most of the Italian ‘Nunsploitation’ productions that were appearing at the same time, Boger’s Justine manages to deliver some rather thoughtful observations on the value of virtue and the hypocrisy of the church, while still delivering some of the skin and sleaze that one would expect from a De Sade adaptation from this period.
The film’s flaws are fairly apparent from the beginning on. Shot stylishly by Deacons but still obviously a very low budget affair, Boger’s film is a bit narratively confused and it never finds quite the right balance between being a well meaning literary adaptation and a trashy exploitation film. Justine works exceedingly well during certain moments, but a draggy pace and some poor supporting performances damage it during others.
British and cult film fans will recognize several of the films supporting players, including Martin Potter (who had just appeared in Norman J. Warren’s Satan’s Slave), Ann Michelle (a few years past 1972’s Virgin Witch which had teamed her with her sister Vicki) and future Norman J Warren Prey star Glory Annen in a small un-credited role.
The film belongs to undervalued Koo Stark, who proves an unforgettable presence and a surprisingly solid actress here. Unfortunately most known for her off screen affairs, Stark is quite incredible here and this film along with 1976’s Emily serve as notice that she should have had a much more noteworthy career than she did. Even without its virtues, and the film does have several, I would recommend Justine just for Koo Stark’s striking subtle and moving performance as the title character.
Justine does indeed mark one of the earliest assignments for legendary cinematographer Roger Deacons and already he is showing much of the skill that he would perfect in later films like Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986) and any number of Coen Brothers productions. Particular absorbing are two eerie and at times disturbing dream sequences that give the film exactly the kind of dark and paranoid fantastical feel it needs.
Redemption's DVD features a fairly solid print that has thankfully not been overly digitized. Looking very much like a film from 1977, with some scratches and some occasional faded colors, Justine is served nicely by Redemption’s new DVD although folks who demand completely blemish free prints might complain. I have read reports that the print used here is slightly cut down but as it is the only version I have seen I can’t comment on that (Tim Lucas has pointed out in the comments to this post that this disc is unfortunately missing three minutes of footage...a real shame as I think otherwise it is a fairly well done DVD). Redemption’s disc includes the two interviews previously mentioned and they are both fairly engrossing and informative. A small photo gallery and some trailers for some other Redemption titles are included as well.
Not without its share of problems, I found much to admire in Chris Boger’s Justine and recommend Redemption’s DVD of it. The performance by Koo Stark is particularly revelatory and it makes me wish she had more films to her credit.