Following the death of their mother, sisters Justine (Power, daughter of Tyrone) and Juliette (Rohm) suffer an additional blow when their father flees 18th century France in financial disgrace. Forced to leave the shelter of convent school, the girls end up in Madame de Buisson's brothel; Juliette decides to stay and embark on a career of lust, deception and murder, while Justine hits the road, encountering a succession of mostly reprehensible characters who use and abuse her for their own gratification and advancement.
Although Justine runs for over 2 hours in its complete director's cut, a 90 minute incarnation remained the most familiar for those lucky enough to cross its path. Now, Franco's original version is available on DVD from Anchor Bay and the disc includes interviews with Franco and his producer, Harry Alan Towers. Here, Franco is heavily critical of Romina Power's performance, revealing that Rosemary Dexter - his choice for the role of Justine - was passed over by the money men who insisted it was "Time for the children of the stars". For my money, Franco's outrage at being overuled by those 'men in suits' heavily distorted his view of Power's abilities. Yes, she was obviously inexperienced and a little wooden at times, but was she ever really given the chance to become the character that was originally intended?
During the course of the film, Justine is abused, blackmailed, deceived, literally branded a murderess and goes through a series of abductions that would tax the patience of even the most avid fan of 24. Power is asked to run the full gamut of emotions and if she's found wanting on more than one occasion, the blame should be mostly laid at Franco's door: at one point in the interview, Jess confesses that many people believe she emerged with some credit and, conceding they may well be right, goes on to take responsibility for any moments of quality. Maybe Power was unlucky to feature in a cast of seasoned performers who were far more familiar with the demands of this type of production: Klaus Kinski in demented form as the caged de Sade; Maria Rohm - excellent as usual - taking the role of wicked sister Juliette; Sylva Koscina who figures in a gripping game of 'Poison Thy Spouse'; Mercedes McCambridge - toning up her tonsils for Billy Friedkin - who delivers a truly evil performance as the gravel-voiced Dubois, and Euro horror buffs will be delighted to see Rosalba Neri; one of a quartet of women who serve a sadistic group led by Howard Vernon. Franco also finds room for (by all accounts) a permanently blotto Jack Palance,and Horst Frank who tries to implicate Justine in the murder of his wife. Rosemary Dexter? Well, she had to settle for a smaller role as Juliette's despicable tutor,and ensures her pupil passes with flying colours.
While Marquis de Sade's Justine may not figure in the top drawer of Franco's filmography, an Altman-esque cast of Euro stars adds sufficient class to gloss over script deficiencies, and make hay with the cruel, perverse aspects of this mostly absorbing tale.
Once again, Anchor Bay have delivered a sharp, colourful transfer and while some print damage is evident, only the sternest critic will come away less than delighted. Applause, too, for another splendid score from Bruno Nicolai. Not quite the Michael Nyman of exploitation cinema, but a wonderfully gifted composer in his own right.
Legendary director of predominantly sex-and-horror-based material, Spanish-born Jesus Franco had as many as 200 directing credits to his name. Trained initially as a musician before studying film at the Sorbonne in Paris, Franco began directing in the late 50s. By using the same actors, sets and locations on many films, Franco has maintained an astonishing workrate, and while the quality of his work has sometimes suffered because of this, films such as Virgin Amongst the Living dead, Eugenie, Succubus and She Killed in Ecstasy remain distinctive slices of 60s/70s art-trash.
Most of his films have been released in multiple versions with wildly differing titles, while Franco himself has directed under a bewildering number of pseudonyms. Actors who have regularly appeared in his films include Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee and wife Lina Romay; fans should also look out for his name on the credits of Orson Welles' Chimes of Midnight, on which he worked as assistant director.