Alexandria in the late nineteen-thirties, and English schoolteacher and sometime poet Darley (Michael York) has moved there to broaden his horizons. One night he is in bed when he hears a commotion outside the window of the pokey room he is living in and can't resist looking to see what is going on, whereupon he catches sight of a belly dancer, Melissa (Anna Karina), who has fled the nightclub she works at after being poisoned with so-called Spanish Fly by a table of American sailors. Darley takes her inside and helps her recover, in the process forging a close friendship which blossoms into a casual romance; that is until a British consul of his acquaintance, Pursewarden (Dirk Bogarde), introduces him to someone...
That someone being the mysterious beauty Justine, played by Anouk Aimée in one of her attempts at breaking out internationally in English language movies which seemed doomed to failure when the public were uninterested in the results. They were particularly uninterested in this adaptation of what had been a bestselling series of novels in the fifties penned by Lawrence Durrell, an unusual case of works verging on the experimental gathering mainstream success, so naturally where there's a hit in the literary world someone often wishes to translate the page to the screen, and so it was with this. Taking its title from the first in the Alexandria Quartet, and not to be confused with anything from the Marquis de Sade, this was a disaster.
In its endeavours to cram in all the nuance of four books into one two hour movie, the filmmakers made their plot alight upon various bits and pieces of the source, but never put across the sense of a narrative flowing easily from one point to the next. Even when it begins, we feel as if there has been something important we have not been told, never mind shown, and with its conspiracies centred on gun running to the Jews in Palestine at the expense of the British, with a dollop of cross-religious feuding into the bargain, when we were asked to care more about Justine and her habit of wrapping men around her little finger, the disparity between these was never going to make for anything but a bumpy ride into confusion - both yours and theirs - and eventual indifference.
Behind the scenes, this was one of those films which must have made the participants wonder why they ever bothered with shooting movies; at least with authoring books the characters were easier to handle and direct. Joseph Strick was the man at the helm, or at least he was when the much delayed filming process began, but he was at loggerheads with many on the production and was asked to leave after capturing a lot of location footage. Veteran George Cukor was brought in to salvage the work, and promptly took everyone away from the Tunisian locations to Hollywood, where Alexandria was recreated unconvincingly on the sets, though even then the disgruntlement was in the air, with Cukor and Aimée both reported to not be getting on too well, to put it mildly.
And when it was finally released, Justine was laughed off the screen by the critics and cognoscenti, while roundly ignored by customers. No matter how much they tried to push the envelope as far as getting away with stuff on screen went, the fact remained this was a resolutely old-fashioned effort, so sure, you could have Aimée frolicking nude in the sea or Dirk Bogarde playfully admitting to being homosexual, but the feeling that they were all slightly abashed at having to depict such things never left it, and the instances of child prostitution, transvestism and incest, not to mention the lead female character sleeping around to get her way, were all illustrated much the same and with much the same goal, to wink at the audience that this was very grown up. It might have felt that way at the time, but now comes across as coy and stodgy, and though there were selected bits where something approaching a decent performance appeared (usually from Bogarde or Karina), everything else was a joyless and leaden test of endurance. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.