by Rich Moreland, December 2016
Justine as film is not new. The earliest version dates to 1969, two productions were released in the 1970s, and another followed in 1987.
To understand Jac Avila’s adaptation, a snapshot of Sade’s original work he borrows is helpful.
All quotes come from the Oxford University 2012 publication of Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue.
All photos are courtesy of Pachamama Films/Decadent Cinema.
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Film adaptations of novels can be daunting.
As a result, filmmakers must sort through characters and scenes to personalize their version of a story.
Justine is no exception, so here are the major characters Jac Avila selected out of the many in Sade’s work. I’ve summarized them as they appear in novel.
Juliette, the Sister
Sade introduces Juliette by her married name, “Madame the Comtesse of Lorsange,” and tells us she owes “her fortune to a pretty face and a great deal of misconduct.” When she and Justine leave the convent as young girls, Juliette reminds her sister that their “youth and looks” will make it “impossible for them to die of hunger.”
With morals that “are completely corrupted,” Sade writes, the older Juliette learns the ways of the flesh as a brothel “working girl.” At twenty she marries an older man, the Comte de Lorsange, whom she eventually murders for his wealth. Thus, Juliette’s life as a libertine and party girl begins.
Incidentally, never deterred by moral restraint, Juliette later offs “one of her admirers” to gain a “legacy” that enriches her further.
But she isn’t finished.
Throw in “three or four infanticides (abortions) to these horrors,” Sade says, and the dissolute Juliette becomes the poster girl for “prosperity can reward the very worst conduct.”
Immediately within the pages of Sade’s work, Juliette and her current sugar daddy, Monsieur de Corville, encounter a poor girl brought in chains to the inn where they are lodging. The wretch is accused of “three crimes, murder, theft, and arson” and is destined for execution in Lyons.
The aristocrats take pity and the prisoner offers to tell her tale. Thus, the devout Justine, who calls herself “Therese” to conceal her identity, begins the narrative that becomes the novel.
Bressac, the Gay Comte
Having escaped a gang of criminals who beat and anally rape her, Justine comes upon two men in the woods “drunk with lust.”
“The young master (the Comte de Bressac) was always the woman,” Justine observes. She later says he “possessed a considerable degree of wickedness.”
But the count has plans to use her as a companion for his aunt. Justine stays in Madame de Bressac’s house for four years, but her doubts about the Comte never go away.
“An evil spirit lay concealed beneath (his) feminine charms” that fostered a “hatred for his aunt,” Justine says.
Not unexpectedly, she refuses to participate in a plot to poison the woman.
As punishment for her insolence, an enraged Bressac, with the help of Jasmin, takes Justine into the forest where she is tied naked to a tree. Admiring her “lovely bottom” and its “superb flesh,” the count predicts the stupid girl “will be an excellent lunch for my three hounds!”
The dogs are released.
“The cruel man walked away . . . I never saw him again,” Justine says.
Bloodied but alive, the abused girl finds her way to Saint-Marcel and a surgeon to treat her wounds. He is Rodin.
In the meantime, Justine discovers that Bressac does indeed carry out his deadly machination and she, the chambermaid, is accused of murder.
The Scientist and his Daughter
Rodin is a doctor “purely out of interest.” His passion is his boarding school. Students of both sexes provide the flesh he sadistically whips and debauches. Living with Rodin is his youthful daughter, Rosalie, who becomes Justine’s friend.
Rodin offers Justine a place in his home though she is suspicious because two pretty servant girls are already there.
“Why does he need a third woman,” Justine asks herself, “and why does he want pretty ones?”
From a crack in the panel boards in her bedchamber, Rosalie reveals to Justine her father’s Friday punishments. As they watch the spectacle, Rosalie confesses she is treated likewise and suffers incest.
Concealed again later, Justine watches the same whipping and carnality this time with the two servants and Rosalie, who is sodomized by her father.
Sade tells us, “Drunk with passion, the libertine dares to taste the sweetest pleasures that incest and infamy have to offer.”
Confiding in Justine, Rosalie says she is now fifteen and ripe for sacrifice in the name of science. Her father and a colleague are going to use her for experiments; her destiny is determined and nothing will save her.
When the fellow doctor questions Rodin about his indifference toward his daughter, the depraved scientist replies, “I, in love with a girl?” Referring to Rosalie as “that little bitch,” he adds, “it’s time she paid for putting an end to my intoxication with her life.”
Rosalie disappears for days before Justine discovers her tied to the posters of a bed. Furious, Rodin grabs Justine and brands her with a mark that “will get her hanged,” he declares.
Helpless, Justine is left at the edge of the forest. Faced with her own pain and troubles, Justine abandons Rosalie to her fate.
Omphale and the Monastery
After fleeing Rodin, Justine comes upon a hidden monastery deep within the woods where depraved monks imprison young women for pleasure, torture, and sex. In this society of vice, the monks are “quite sure their crimes will never be revealed.”
Justine’s string of bad luck predictably continues and she is put into the ranks of the abused.
All sorts of horrors befall her but she does find a friend, Omphale, who, like Virgil guiding Dante through the Nine Circles of Hell, shows Justine everything, including exaggerated and whimsical punishments that would quickly kill any human being.
But this novel is pure fantasy, so the girls survive and their bodily marks simply disappear leaving them fresh for another round of torture, flogging, and sex.
The only way out of this hellish existence is to be among the mysterious “discharges,” Justine learns, the girls who are dismissed and sent away. Despite their promises to help those still imprisoned, these unfortunates are never heard from again.
This fate befalls Omphale.
Later when Justine manages to escape in total darkness, an improbable turn in the tale, she traverses the six walls that conceal the monastery. Along the way, she finds a skull in the dirt and believes she’s come upon “the cemetery where these torturers throw the bodies of their victims . . . This skull was perhaps that of my dear Omphale,” she laments.
Though she is free, Justine never returns to rescue the tormented girls she leaves behind.
After treating her with care, Saint-Florent takes Justine into the forest as darkness closes in and knocks her unconscious with his walking stick.
When Justine regains her senses, she finds herself “bruised, bloodied . . . and dishonoured,” her virginity gone.
It is at this point she comes upon Bresssac and his man, Jasmin.
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We are now ready to examine Jac Avila’s treatment of the story. He keeps Sade’s narrative in tact at the beginning before exploring his own take on Justine’s character.
That, after all, is the nature of an adaptation.
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Justine is available for purchase at Vermeerworks.com.