I can’t speak for how faithful this adaptation of Marquis De Sade’s Justine (aka Cruel Passion) is, but if it doesn’t stick directly to the text, I have to imagine it sticks to the author’s intent (the best it can, that is, without being pornographic). Under the direction of Chris Boger, and the lens of Coen Brothers stalwart Roger Deakins, Justine is an erotically-charged, bleak little number about a girl (Koo Stark, supposedly playing a pre-teen, though she’s obviously and thankfully in her 20’s) who clings desperately to her innocence while ricocheting from scene to scene where that chastity is put to the test in harrowing ways.
The film doesn’t skimp on the depravity, featuring rape, necrophilia, mother-son incest and more, but before you draw the conclusion that this is some despicable sleaze-fest, it really isn’t. Boger, perhaps limited by the censors, picks his battles, and when he does, he always chooses sexual frankness over outright titillation. Many things are discussed or implied without being directly shown. There’s not much nudity in here for an “erotic” film from the 1970’s, and Boger chooses to construct the entire film as little episodes of trouble for Justine, building up to its nihilistic, tough-as-nails conclusion.
Forgoing an exploitation vibe, Boger captures something close to what Hammer was doing at the time, and the cinematography, acting, and locales are all reminiscent of Hammer’s output during the 70’s. Koo Stark’s intelligent eyes and capable acting also elevate the film from soft-core into something more substantial. Is it horror? Aside from a grim dream sequence, there’s no apparent attempt to scare anyone, though the content of the entire film is troubling. I have a feeling that the ending will evoke a “love it or hate it” response, but to me, that’s when the film went from being a minor curiosity into an undiscovered gem. It’s a gut-punch of the most hateful variety.
Thankfully, Kino Lorber also thinks it’s a gem, restoring the film as part of their Redemption line. The restored picture is unusually good for a film with no real cult audience (hopefully, that will change with this release), and the disc features interviews with Boger as well as screenwriter Ian Cullen.