Ah, the Marquis De Sade. One of the most infamous and influential figures in world literature, De Sade is one of the few Pre-Revolution bad boys who still maintains his power to shock and appall modern readers. His tales of nihilistic social hypocrisy, of the triumph of vice over virtue, of the pursuit of one's personal pleasure without regard to the sufferings of others (even exulting in such suffering), still pack enough of a wallop after more than 200 years. If you've ever read any of De Sade's writings (especially his unfinished opus 120 Days of Sodom), you know that our modern conception of Sadism as a fun way to spend your weekend with some freaky kinky friends falls woefully short of the full picture when it comes to the man's literary ideas.
Probably one of De Sade's most-adapted stories is Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, and it is this story (along with its sequel, L'Histoire de Juliette) that forms the basis for Chris Boger's 1977 film Cruel Passion (aka The Marquis De Sade's Justine), a gorgeous and suitably bleak adaptation that doesn't water down De Sade at all. In this one Koo Stark (famous for being the American girlfriend of Prince Andrew before his marriage to the the Duchess of York) plays the titular maiden, who over the course of the film learns that meek adherence to Christian ideals of virtue in a world where no one else is virtuous is not only stupid--it's downright dangerous.
We open the film with Justine and her sister Juliette going down to the graveyard to attend their parents' funeral. Their father hanged himself, and thus cannot lie in consecrated ground; their mother, dead apparently of a broken heart, wished to lie beside her husband for eternity; thus, in the views of the strict nuns who run the convent where Justine and Juliet lodge, both are damned to ETERNAL HELLFIRE! The sincerely virtuous Justine is horrified by this pronouncement, and over the grave has the first of the film's excellent nightmare sequences, as she envisions the coffins spitting flame from the grave while the voices of tormented souls and condemnatory clergy echo in her ears.
Back at the convent the elder sister Juliette (played with laudable lasciviousness by the lovely Lydia Lisle) has been influenced by letters from their cousin, a prostitute making a fine living in London. Irreligious and disrespectful, Juliette torments the sapphically-minded Sister Claire into many compromising positions, laughing at her protestations and hollow repentance after the deed is done. Meanwhile the money-grubbing Mother Superior and the hypocritical Pastor John are both looking for ways to turn the girls' new orphaned status to their advantage. When Justine turns down the Mother Superior's amorous advances (in a wild, disturbing near-rape scene intercut with images of Juliette and Sister Claire and set to the music of otherworldly groans), the enraged Bride of Christ tosses both Justine and Juliette out of the convent to make their way in the world however they might.
Justine wants to throw herself on Pastor John's mercy, but the canny Juliette has different plans. Since both she and Justine are virgins, Juliette plans to take Justine to the brothel where their cousin works, train to become prostitutes, and make a fortune selling their virginity to the highest bidders. Justine recoils at the idea, but having no other means of support she's forced to go along with her sister. On the road to London they meet the handsome Lord Carlisle, who flirts with both sisters and promises to win the bid for Juliette's maidenhead.
Once they arrive at the brothel, Madame Laronde (a wonderful performance by Katherine Kath) takes both sisters under her wing and begins training them for their future careers. The Madame delivers a lot of Sadean philosophy almost verbatim from his writings, musings about sex and power and a woman's responsibility to use what she has to get all she can. (Great quotes abound, such as "Religion is an illness--to be cured!" and "If nature had intended us to be modest, we shouldn't have been born naked!") The sooner they rid themselves of pretension to virtue and ideas about the innate goodness of people, she says, the happier and better off they'll be. Juliette takes it all to heart, but the pure-hearted Justine is not convinced.
I can't go by the brothel training scenes without mentioning one of the hightlights of the movie, a show-stealing turn by Barry McGinn as the cocaine-tooting sexual maniac George, whom the Madame keeps on hand to help initiate all the girls into the life of a prostitute. The skinny, effitte George is like something out of a Monty Python porno, all high-pitched laughter, wild gesticulations, and unintelligible Italian. He rides the whores like horses or is carried like a sack of potatoes, all the while cackling orgasmically. Juliette learns her lessons well, but Justine won't even try.
True to his word Lord Carlilse wins the right to be Juliette's first lover. While he deflowers her, though, Justine steals a bauble and runs away. Once the sisters' paths diverge, we begin to see the Sadean consequences of a life spent seeking virtue versus a life spent embracing vice.
Justine makes her way back to Pastor John's rectory, expecting the man of God to shield her from the evils of the world. Of course the Pastor is as fallen and corrupt as most (and more than some). Drunk when she arrives, the pastor spouts more Sadean philosophy and leers at Justine for a while before showing her to her room. She falls into a dream-filled sleep (giving us time for antoher wild nightmare scene, complete with zombie parents, monster nuns, and Justine herself stretched out on a flaming cross!), and then awakes to find the Pastor standing over her bed, ready to pounce! Justine overpowers the drunken preacher and runs to the roof, where he, tipsy from the drink, falls to his death. Another near-rape avoided, Justine is nonetheless wanted for the murder of a clergyman, and so has to flee for her life.
lets the horrified girl see her folks' decomposing bodies. The thieves decide to hold her for ransom or turn her over for the reward, but their matronly leader Miss Bonny likes a third option--have her join them and use Justine's beauty to lure victims into their murderous, thieving web. (In this world, beauty is always a trap for the unwary.) Justine again refuses, but when Miss Bonny threatens to let her men rape Justine before turning her over for hanging, she must finally consent.
Meanwhile back at the brothel, everything's going well for Juliette. Rescued from a Sadistic spanking by Lord Carlisle, she's soon to be installed as his mistress, with a big house all her own and all the gold she can spend. Worried about her sister, though, she asks his loving lordship to look for her, which he does. By a twist of fate he finds her tied up on the coach road, only to be waylaid by the gang of thieves! A brutal scene follows in which the thieves murder all the other coach passengers (including a young boy who gets his throat cut and a woman who gets raped posthumously!) and hold Carlisle for ransom. When one of the robbers decides it's too risky to let his lordship live, Justine offers to sacrifice herself to the man's lusts if he'll spare Carlisle's life. Before the deal can be consummated Justine manages to slip her bonds and free Carlilse, and together they ride off toward the nearest town, with the robbers in pursuit.
Being in close proximity with Justine is playing havok with Carlisle's libido, however, and finally even he is driven to attack Justine to satisfy his own vile lusts. Forsaken by her savior, Justine meets a perversely biblical fate when the robbers catch up with them and loose the dogs on them, a turnabout of the Jezebel story with virtue recast in the role of vice. Juliette presumably lives happily ever after (though Carlisle is also killed, one doesn't imagine she'll be long on the rebound), and the topsy-turvy turnaround of the kind De Sade loved so much is complete.
De Sade's bleak world view is not softened here, and it's bound to turn off some less cynical viewers. Perhaps most central and hammered home is the view that not only is Justine's virtue no protection against the evils of the world, it actually provokes those evils to be brought down upon her; her vulnerability and naivety is an absolute magnet for the worst in everybody, even (especially) those from whom she expects only good. Self-sacrifice and self-denial are a chump's game; virtue is punished, vice is rewarded, everyone uses everyone else and no one is uncorrupted--the best you can hope is to get what you can and damn the rest.
So there are a lot of heavy philosophical ideas being floated around here--but of course really that's all an excuse for exploitational hijinks, and the movie doesn't disappoint here either. Koo Stark is absolutely gorgeous and often nude, and her angelic purity does indeed seem to invite the kind of lusts it seeks to defend against. Lydia Lisle, while not the beauty that Koo is, still has a great body and doesn't mind showing it with her character's attractive abandon. And the first half hour of this movie contains pretty much some of the most intense, dirty nunsploitation I've seen, particularly Justine's harrowing attack at the hands of the Mother Superior. Murder, rape, thievery, and more rape--the movie scarcely lets up, and leaves the viewer breathless and probably feeling a little sick.
So how to rate it? Well, most folks know what they're getting into with one of De Sade's stories, so if you've sought it out chances are you'll like what you see. The acting is good, the filming is gorgeous (there are some particularly nice compositions with religious icons in the foreground while horrors go on in the background, and the nightmare sequences are all really powerful), and I could look at Koo Stark for hours and not get bored. So I give this one 2.75 thumbs, and a hearty recommendation for those looking for the feel-bad sex romp of the year. And tell Madame Laronde the Vicar sent you. You might even get it free. ;)