Tag Archives: Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue

I Only See Darkness: Jac Avila’s Justine, Part Five

by Rich Moreland, December 2016

SPOILER ALERT! This last installment of Justine discusses the film’s ending, but only partially. For the final resolution watch the film.

Justine is available through Vermeerworks in a download format or in DVD for those who want their own home library.

All photos are courtesy of Pachamama/Decadent Films.

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To Know the Unknowable

As Justine moves to its final outcome, Juliette takes center stage and tells her sister about their past.

Her narrative takes place at the pillory but it is interwoven with scenes of Juliette inspecting the dungeon where she amusingly caresses the restraining ropes and turns the wheel of torture.

In an empowered moment feminists will admire, Juliette holds a flogger and pulls it taut.

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“With the figure and age we both had, we could not die of hunger,” Juliette recalls. “These speeches horrified Justine. She declared she preferred death.”

And what of Juliette, a criminal at fourteen? She never looked back.

“Prosperity . . . soiled with crime and horrors” brought her to this moment, she says.

The triumph of vice looks down upon the humiliation of virtue.

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Jac Avila uses Juliette’s cynicism to confront Justine’s faith as the curtain begins to descend.  It goes straight to the heart of the story, the pretense to know the unknowable.

Thirty-Nine

A redemptive moment in the bedroom prompts Justine’s promise to help Omphale escape (a vague reference to the novel when both were imprisoned in the monastery).

It’s all for naught, of course. Sade reveals that such promises are never carried out.

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Justine is captured along with the other girls and the connection to the film’s opening scene is now complete.

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Justine is sentenced, whipped, and pilloried.

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The others receive their marks in kind . . .

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. . . with Rosalie’s particularly graphic in a marvelously shot BDSM scene.

“Behold poor Rosalie. Born to be sacrificed. She will receive thirty-nine lashes of the whip,” Justine laments, addressing the camera once again.

Rodin is creating “his own version of the passion play with his daughter as the sacrifice,” she adds.

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Thirty-nine is forty minus one, the number given Christ (forty was thought to bring death) and thirty-nine is three times the unlucky thirteen revisiting the number archetype we’ve already referenced.

Go back and check the opening scene, Justine passes out during her scourging following the thirty-ninth lash.

The Cross

After the march to the crucifixion site . . .

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. . . the sacrificial victims are positioned on a tripod-like configuration (the number three again) that is actually a drying rack for animal hides typical of native cultures.

Rodin taunts Justine about the pain of the nails (in the novel he brands her as a whore) and looks proudly at his work for the benefit of the crowd.

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Juliette approaches her sister.

“I will not share your pain . . . I will not take you down from your cross.”

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In truth, Juliette cannot.

Justine is being punished for transgressions Sade, her literary creator, charged her with three centuries ago. In the novel when Rosalie is awaiting death at the hands of her father, Justine abandons her.

“I only thought of fleeing,” she says, though admitting that “leaving an innocent victim” to her fate was painful.

Grappling with her circumstances, Justine chooses self-preservation, preferring to “instantly set off on foot” to get away from the evil Rodin.

Her hand is in Rosalie’s murder as surely as if she were in that fatal room.

Now it’s pay back. Retribution.

Justine’s devotion to virtue has shortsighted her humanity allowing Jac Avila to brilliantly tie his film to Sade’s novel.

Our heroine will die with Rosalie . . . and with her devoted friend from the Sade’s monastery, Ophmale, whose skull Justine finds when she escapes the devilish monks.

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Do You See Paradise?

As it happens, there is a final irony in this film that Sade would appreciate.

Justine’s death is a parody of Calvary . . . she is one of the criminals, an unwitting fate for the virtuous.

With unexpected compassion, Juliette promises Justine that perceived injustices (a satrical play on her name) will be punished demonstrating that virtue is often hidden within vice.

But the unknowable always lingers.

“You must answer me something,” Juliette says, gazing up at virtue’s disgrace. “Do you see Paradise? Do you see Hell waiting for you?”

She emphasizes “hell” with dripping scorn that mocks the blood on her sister’s body.

Justine utters, “I only see darkness . . . “

So then, we ask, what is the fate of virtue? Perhaps nothing more than the pretense to know the unknowable.

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Final Thoughts

Both the Marquis de Sade and Jac Avila question the central conundrum about God that has forever perplexed the faithful.

Is He merciful or simply whimsical?

Sade the atheist dismisses the argument altogether as illustrated when Justine is imprisoned in the monastery’s collection of tortured female flesh.

To make way for new girls, current ones are regularly discharged (murdered) but without any particular reason. Age, attractiveness, attitude, nothing seems to determine who is chosen and why.

Jac Avila has a larger, moral take on the question. To understand how he handles this deeper issue, view this thought provoking film and watch for what is not included here.

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Before we close, a word about the cast.

Amy Hesketh moves Justine’s character from Sade’s pathetic, clueless girl to an assertive woman who must deal with her fate. It is an admirable performance.

Cortney Willis is perfect for the haughty, arrogant, but sympathetic Juliette and Jac Avila artfully captures the indifferent Rodin, a scientist unmoved by the misery of those around him.

Mila Joya, a veteran of Pachamama/Decadent productions, and Beatriz Riveria have few lines but carry each scene with their interpretation of torture and suffering. Both women are exotic beauties who make luscious victims of Rodin’s evil ways.

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Kudos to all.

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Congratulations to Amy and Jac for another superb and highly recommended film . . .

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And to Amy, Mila, and Beatriz for braving chilly weather to bare it all for art!!

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I Only See Darkness: Jac Avila’s Justine, Part Four

by Rich Moreland, December 2016

SPOILER ALERT! The final resolution of Justine is right around the corner!

The installments of this five-part review are posted as a package but designed as stand alone essays, so you may read the ones you like and forgo the others.

All photos are courtesy of Pachamama/Decadent Films.

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Pachamama Films/Decadent Cinema combines erotic horror and soft core S&M action within a framework of classical literature, a rare adventure in movie making.

Dead But Dreaming’s vampire legends, Ollala (based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s vampire tale by the same name), and Barbazul (Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard”) represent avant-garde indie film that offers timeless story telling infused with adult themes.

And don’t forget, Amy Hesketh’s performance art lures everyone into her cauldron of sexuality and pain that marks (pun intended) the excitement of these productions.

Amy’s talent is on full display again in Justine. Undoubtedly her interpretation of the suffering feminine is hard on her body and eventually she will decide enough is enough. So if watching Amy on-screen is your pleasure, be sure to get a copy of this film.

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Having said that, Justine, sparks conversation in another way.

Following the footprint of the films mentioned above, Justine carries a political message steeped in images that are literary and mythological.

Let’s take a brief look at a few examples.

Three

First, the movie’s most dynamic image, the restrained and punished woman, surpasses other Jac Avila creations with the possible exception of Maleficarum.

Amy Hesketh, Mila Joya, and Beatriz Riveria are easy on the eyes and offer the visual delights of a good whipping that S&M aficionados appreciate.

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But that’s for just for starters. There’s more.

Take the archetypal number three, the staple of myth and legend which accounts for its dominance in the Bible. Jac Avila follows Sade’s lead in exploring it.

The novel mentions twenty-one victims (three sevens) consumed in the prison fire. Adulthood is also age twenty-one, a hint that when Justine escapes from prison, she is old enough to take responsibility for her decision-making, or more specifically her inaction, in a theme that runs through Sade’s work.

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Also, the dungeon candle stands have combinations of threes and sixes cleverly placed among the torture devices.

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The Circle

Jac Avila focuses on three sacrificial victims to create his religious motif.

Each girl is bound to the wheel reminding the viewer that while a patriarchal God may oversee the world, women are the source of a never-ending circle of virtue and vice–reproduction on one hand and sexual temptation on the other–that drives the human condition.

Thus we have the wheel’s most important message. Civilization’s male-dominated hierarchies insist that female sexuality is not to be trusted, so women must be confined and chained rather than celebrated.

By the way, trust makes its appearance at the end of the film in an ironic twist. But you’ll have to watch the movie to see it.

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Speaking of sacrifices, after Rosalie’s dungeon crucifixion her stigmata wounds are treated by Omphale and Justine in a scene reminiscent of the three women at Calvary (Golgotha) recounted in the gospels.

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Then, of course, there’s Jac’s version of the three crosses we’ll see later.

The Sacred Feminine or Defiant Feminist?

White is the color of purity and the girls wear white loincloths depicting the partially clad martyr linked to the Medieval crucifixion image. Only Justine is nude.

In this modern interpretation of Sade’s novel, she is both virtue and vice, honoring the complete woman and validating her defiance of patriarchy despite her humiliation.

In other words, Justine is totally exposed, the literary “everywoman.”

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When the abused girls retreat to their bed, the configuration of their bodies is a reminder of the Holy Trinity with the God/Daughter shift illustrated by Rosalie’s suffering.

The importance of the sacred feminine in Church lore cannot be easily dismissed.

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However, this scene is part of a series of images that begins in the dungeon with the chained and collared Justine grabbing vainly for Rodin in a fit of vengeance. She is defiant and frustrated, the angry feminine, or in modern terms, feminist.

12342441_10153165674282882_7911671529364754032_nThen we see the Trinity motif just mentioned.

At first the girls are looking away from each other, individualized in their agony, emphasizing the misery and abandonment that is part of the human condition.

But they eventually join hands in spirit as well as in truth, an affirmation that the sacred feminine will prevail.

Imagistically, they form their own wheel with their overlapping hands on Justine’s hip as the hub.

Leonardo’s Perfection

300px-da_vinci_vitruve_luc_viatourIt’s worth mentioning that Jac Avila’s woman on the wheel is a vague reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” perhaps suggested by the filmmaker more unconsciously than deliberately.

Simply put, each girl represents the Renaissance thinker’s harmonic blend of art and science that ultimately spawned the Age of Enlightenment and, ironically, the Marquis de Sade.

In this film the female image emerges perfect in form while tormented with pain, as Justine reminds us with her harsh condemnation of Biblical tenets.

We can conclude then that Justine is a full-fledged challenge to the Church and its intrusion into the pre-theological State of Nature that Sade celebrates. Jac Avila has given us pause to reconsider Sade’s argument.

We have a broader question, of course, that is too much to consider here. Is the perfect female form and its corresponding consciousness a creation of Nature or God? Or both?

Cutting Across Time

The confrontation between female suffering and empowerment, the heart of this story, cuts across time.

Here are some of the examples.

In I Only See Darkness: Part Two of this review, we see twenty-first century vehicle tires abandoned on the side of the road, a comment on Justine’s situation.

Then there is Rodin’s modern bottle of beer in the dungeon scene, though bottled beer was known in Sade’s day. As the film comes to its denouement, Rodin wears sunglasses not available in the eighteenth century. Combine those images with a wife-beater shirt and the macho persona of the alpha male (God?) steps into view.

12265552_522310101276893_6619100802816208411_oAlso, we have the brass bed (a Victorian invention) that post-dates Sade. But it is appropriate here because the Victorians muted female sexuality, giving rise to Freudian theory on hysteria, repression, and sexual anxiety.

The costumes are eclectic. In the dungeon scenes, for instance, Rodin sports the aforementioned wife-beater shirt, a Hollywood staple reaching back to the 1930s.

Incidentally, Amy Hesketh cobbled the wardrobe together for the film . . . not a simple task.

Now we know why Jac Avila breaks the fourth wall repeatedly. His message transcends the here and now and goes well beyond the story at hand. What better way to reinforce the narrative’s timelessness than addressing the viewer directly, cutting through the limitations configured by the camera’s lens.

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So, that’s a quick run-down of some of the symbolism incorporated into the Justine narrative.

We’re set now to venture into our last installment for the dramatic conclusion Jac Avila has crafted for this version of the Sadean saga. He deviates from Sade somewhat but retains the flavor of the novel to its bitter end.

A reminder. If you don’t want to know how everything turns out, skip the next post!

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12313702_10207283807987314_7432081521215658282_nFor the curious, Amy often crafts the torture instruments including racks, whips, and the like that appear in all Pachamama/Decadent Films.

Getting a feel for the whips is something BDSMers would understand.

By the way, in making Justine, testing the wheel was vitally important, as you might expect.

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Amy Hesketh can be reached on Facebook and followed on twitter. Jac Avila is also on twitter.

 

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I Only See Darkness: Jac Avila’s Justine, Part Three

by Rich Moreland, December 2016

SPOILER ALERT! The ending of Justine is revealed in the final installment of this five-part review.

Writing about the Broadway blockbuster “Hamilton,” the Huffington Post’s Catherine Rappell said, “Art should be political (as this brilliant show already is, in spades). Artists should be political, too.”

Consider her words as we further our look at Justine.

All photos are courtesy of Pachamama Films/ Decadent Cinema.

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justine-bookWithin the pages of Justine, the Marquis de Sade rails against the Church and the worthlessness of virtue.

A self-proclaimed atheist, Sade writes of a vice-ridden world that takes what it wants and offers no quarter.

In his film version of Justine, Jac Avila explores Sade’s idea through one of the Marquis’s characters, Rodin the Scientist, who assumes a God-like role in the name of science . . . appropriate because the story takes place in the Age of Enlightenment.

This updated Rodin is not an atheist in true Sadean fashion, but he is a libertine, a political philosophy that also came to mean sexually obscene in Sade’s time.

And there’s one more difference. Rodin gives his victims a taste for vice that goes beyond Sade, empowering the feminine to criticize and inflict pain, if only so briefly.

Friday Punishments

Following the slave auction, Justine finds herself in Rodin’s home. His attentions make her uncomfortable.

“What need has he for a third woman, I asked myself? Why must they all be so pretty?” she says, again breaking the fourth wall.

Taking Justine to a secret panel in her bedchamber, Rosalie pulls back a curtain to reveal the dungeon where Rodin conducts his Friday punishments.

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Her father comes up with “trifles” to justify his pleasures, Rosalie explains.

Today, it is Omphale. As Justine watches, she turns to the viewer. “For libertinage alone,” she declares, “the passions he carries to its extremes.”

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Denouncing her father as a monster, Rosalie says he has “a grand plan divine” for her and it is not pleasant.

“Poor Rosalie is doomed.” Justine pronounces with resignation.

Truth and Perfection

The film now moves into the dungeon for an extended display of Rodin’s sadism. S&M lovers will sit up and take notice.

After finishing with Omphale, the scientist puts Rosalie on the rack in a crucifixion position that presages what it to come.  He explains to Justine, the now unwilling third victim in this Biblical farce, his libertine philosophy.

“I seek truth, I seek perfection,” and that can only be done by offering “the cruel death of our firstborn.”

In a parody of the Church, Rodin will be God, his Christ a female.

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In other words, Jac Avila challenges Sade with a contradiction that is political to the core.

Rodin is a usurper, a pedophile, an incestuous sadist who dances in the forest with the devil. Yet he recognizes what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung asserts is the duality of man.

Jung asserts that the definition of God (Good) is silent without its opposite, evil, which gives “good” its meaning. Likewise, virtue can only be understood through examining vice.

What’s more, Rodin is raising the earthly female to equal Christ, creating his own collective of tortured martyrs and flings it in the face of the Church. Christ only has meaning through the existence of woman.

In an ironic twist, it is a feminist statement that decries the Medieval Church’s patriarchal attitudes on one hand while revealing the Christian disdain for the sexually open “fairer sex” on the other.

He Shall Rule Over You

Rodin passes the whip to Justine.

ja98Looking into the camera, Justine reminds us that God curses and punishes Eve “because she has eaten from the tree of knowledge.”

Justine the virtuous suddenly becomes Justine the enforcer, inflicting agony under the cover of religion in a victory for vice . . . at least momentarily.

Forcefully striking Rosalie, Justine again directs her attention to the camera’s eye.

“Intense,” she declares with conviction and lands another blow on the bloodied girl. “And prolonged pain (another strike) meted out as punishment (another crack on the suffering Rosalie) appears almost immediately in the pages of the Bible.”

Omphale now takes the flogger as Rodin lays Justine on the floor and penetrates and debases her simply because he can. Feminism is empowered, then violated.

Justine hurls a political invective at God about the pain of childbirth.

Rodin pumps away; her anger builds.

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Speaking directly to women, Justine continues with dripping sarcasm.

“Yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.”

This is feminism in its most dramatic moment, a belligerent and contemptuous rejection of a male hegemony born of the faith.

This is not Sade’s Justine, not even close.

It’s a superb piece of filmmaking.

From Victim to Participant

After her rape, Justine is the next object of Rodin’s amusement. Put on the rack, she is pulled taut, screams, and is released for another go in a repeated chorus of revenge, martyrdom, and sexual brutality.

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Later in the bedroom, Justine and Rosalie spread Omphale’s arms restraining her as she is having sex with Rodin. Justine whips the girl while she “enjoys” a ride of pain and pleasure.

At this moment, Justine is not a victim, she is in control, a libertine-in-waiting who metes out ecstasy with every stroke.

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Is this virtue’s revenge, or virtue merely on hold?

And, what is the larger question?

Perhaps it is that virtue and vice are interchangeable and no one can be distinctly one or the other despite Sade’s best efforts to prove otherwise.

Nothing Better?

Returning to the dungeon, Rodin takes up Sade’s argument on eternity, but gives it a perverse spiritual touch.

Referencing his intentions with Rosalie, he says to Justine, “If nothing is lost to Nature, if nothing perishes . . . if a decomposed body just awaits dissolution merely to return in another form, then this act of cruelty and murder is indifferent.”

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Justine slowly and deliberately claps her hands in mockery and disgust.

“I applaud you, our dear lord and master. Your wisdom astonishes me, but your indifference confounds me. I thought you amorous.”

Feminism strikes again and Justine parlays it into a brief, commendable moment.

But wait, is she really addressing the supposedly loving God whose motivations are pure guesswork?

Rodin’s replies he tortures when he has “nothing better to do.”

Are his words a tribute to the Old Testament God who reigns misery on mankind seemingly without purpose and a reference to Sade’s monks who in the end dispatch their victims without rhyme or reason?

With that, Rodin furthers his entertainment and puts Omphale on the rack.

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Obviously, Rosalie’s decomposing body is destined not be alone.

The Wheel

A motif of the extended torture scenes is the wheel in Rodin’s dungeon. He puts each girl on it in turn.

The device is a nod to the Inquisition, the stock-in-trade of the Medieval Church. The wheel secured its victims for, among other things, a good flogging. To the delight of the perverse inquisitors, whipping was the pretext for exposing female flesh in the name of redemption.

Incidentally, Rodin’s wheel only turns in one direction, left to right. When one girl is punished, the others rotate the wheel, in effect taking the scene back in time when the Church’s word was unassailable.

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Oh yes, the wheel also shows us that throughout the ages women are the submissives in a never-ending cycle (circle?) of male dominance.

When this scene winds down, Rodin gets a bottle of beer and pauses to admire his work . . . a tribute to sadomasochism turned into art!

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Rosalie is on the wheel, Omphale on the rack (which has its own wheel for increasing the pain, incidentally), and the raped Justine chained to the wall with a metal collar and heavy ball pressuring on her neck.

Beauty has no limits.

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The next post will look at the imagery Jac Avila employs to enliven his narrative.

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No matter whose film it is, Amy and Jac are always working together for the best outcome . . .

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And sometimes more discussion to get things just right evolves into a group effort . . .

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I Only See Darkness: Jac Avila’s Justine, Part Two

by Rich Moreland, December 2016

SPOILER ALERT! The ending of Justine will be revealed in the final installment of this review.

I’ve said previously that Jac Avila/Amy Hesketh films are worthy of academic study. Keep this in mind as we go through the rest of this multipart review.

All photos are courtesy of Pachamama Films/Decadent Cinema.

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From her predicament in the pillory, Justine’s story continues.

She landed in prison for crimes she did not commit and is now “on the brink of paying with my life,” she tells Juliette.

For the moment, Jac Avila is on board with Sade as outlined in Justine, Part Two: Novel to Film.

Here’s a quick summary to give us a flavor of how this part of the story is cinematically handled.

Lost Virginity and a Murder Plot

Justine escapes her confinement thanks to Dubois and her gang. A prison fire provides cover though, as we’ve mentioned, the blaze exacts its price in consumed victims.

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Once free, the gang (Justine is now one of them) roam a local road and run into a merchant named Saint-Florent (Erix Antoine). The outlaws make their intentions known and Justine manages to prevent Saint-Florent’s death by claiming him as a relative.

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Satisfied with their conquest and profit, the gang imbibes too much and Saint-Florent and Justine simply walk away.  Later the cad leads Justine into the forest where he relieves her of her virginity after knocking her cold.

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Left alone, the violated girl wanders the woods and comes upon the Comte de Bressac (Alejandro Loayza) and his valet (Rodrigo Leon Leon) engaged in a bit of homoerotic delight.

Notice the small white bubble-like lights that drift from the bottom to the top of the screen. They’re the visual “stars” of Justine’s dazed and muddled brain as she stumbles into a scene that shocks her.

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Befriended by the count, Justine learns of his plot to murder his aunt. She is to be his accomplice.

Of course, Justine refuses to deliver the poison and is beaten and destined to be torn apart by Bressac’s dogs for her insolence.

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From here, Jac Avila departs from Sade. Before looking into how he changes the scope and message of the story, the focus of the next installment of this review, a couple of points need visiting.

Time

Jac Avila’s narrative cuts across time in such a way as to universalize the story and playfully push Sade into this century. We see this in two instances worth noting.

The first is an image. When Justine and Saint-Florent are walking along a road, there are two discarded automobile tires off to the side. The camera focuses on them. Why?

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The positioning of the tires (one looms over the other) is indicative of the questionable “path” our virtuous girl is taking in her journey. Vice awaits Justine who will, like the tires, soon be beaten down, worn out, soiled, and discarded.

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Before reaching the end of her dismal adventure, Justine is deflowered and sold into slavery to be tortured and sodomized.

The second reference related to time counterbalances the tire imagery.

In a seemingly odd moment, Saint-Florent tells the gang his horse’s name is Athena.

As the film heads for its conclusion, Juliette identifies herself to Justine as a “Priestess of Venus . . . whose fortune is the product of a pretty face and much misconduct.”

Considering the ingenuity we’ve come to expect from a Jac Avila production, there is more here than a couple of names.

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Athena is the patroness of ancient Athens, but she is also a virgin. On the other hand, Venus is the Roman version of Aphrodite, the symbol of female seduction, sex, and lust. Consider that the Romans conquered the Greeks as part of their empire building and the contrast is clear.

aber58-75Athena and Venus are the clash of virtue and vice before the coming of Christianity.

In other words, virtue versus vice is as old as mankind and as so often happens, vice wins . . . thus the reason for the rise of the faith!

Still, that is not the complete picture Jac Avila is showing us.  Justine eventually indulges in the taste of the libertine (albeit forced upon her, one could argue), enjoying brief  moments of vice Sade never considers.

Will Heaven take its revenge assuming, ahem, there is a paradise? We’ll revisit this question before time expires, as they say in sports.

The Auction

The film is now ready for its departure from the Marquis’s narrative.

Jasmin suggests to Bressac they profit from Justine. Rather than feeding her to his dogs as Sade illustrates (see Justine, Part Two: Novel to Film), Bressac agrees to sell her into slavery. The underground auction is the work of profiteers because eighteenth century France had outlawed all slavery beyond its colonial holdings.

The buyers in this flesh for sale crime are libertines with designs that compel abducted women to suffer the whims of others.

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Justine is naked and humiliated by the proceedings. The bidding is fierce with Juliette going against Rodin who is present with his possessions, Ompahle and Rosalie.

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Our virtuous misfortunate is inspected (the marks of her beating at the hands of Jasmin are severe) and sold to Rodin. Juliette loses to the villain here, but will triumph in the end.

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Justine’s nightmare of confinement and torture amidst Rodin’s political and philosophical arguments is just beginning.

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I’ve mentioned in previous reviews that the performers in Jac Avila/Amy Hesketh films are truly a neighborhood theater group much like Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air in the age of Radio.

Having fun among friends is an ingredient Pachamama/Decadent camaraderie carries into every film.

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I Only See Darkness: Jac Avila’s Justine, Part One

by Rich Moreland, December 2016

Now that we’ve discussed Justine, the novel, and looked at what Jac Avila has borrowed for his version of the story, we’re ready to analyze the film.

SPOILER ALERT! The ending of Justine is included in this five-part review.

All photos are courtesy of Pachamama Films/Decadent Cinema. Performer names are inserted where appropriate.

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In a nod to the Marquis de Sade, Jac Avila’s cinematic version of Justine tells the story in flashback mode and sticks closely to the novel early on.

justineposterv04oficial-510x775However, the opening scene departs from Sade and establishes that this film will forge its own path in ways that reveal Justine dabbling in the libertine philosophy she supposedly abhors.

This is not to say Justine abandons her virtue, but the bottom line in this film is about defiance and empowerment that, contradictory to Sade, requires a woman of strength who endures her fate.

Jac Avila puts the abused lass on that trajectory.

 

Public Humiliation

Justine (Amy Hesketh)  is brought into the town square for a public scourging. It’s announced she’s charged with prostitution and theft and will spend a night in the pillory before being sent off to a “hard labor” fate.

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Prostitution? Sade mentions nothing of that. What’s more, there is no public humiliation at the whipping post in his novel.

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The officer in charge (Gonzolo Konka) isn’t finished because the crimes of murder and arson are also part of the charges. Justine escaped from prison with the gang leader Dubois (Gina Alcon) during a fire which our heroine supposedly set.

Twenty-one people died and later Justine is blamed for a second murder, that of Madame de Bressac.

So the unfortunate girl is doomed.

The flogging begins, the crowd counts the strokes, and Amy Hesketh initiates this provocative film in a fashion only she can orchestrate. It’s a superb scene and another cinematic triumph for an actress/director whose performance art we’ve come to take for granted.

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Notice the crucifixion position of Justine as a criminal. That’s important because this film has a religious undercurrent that challenges the Church.

By the way, after receiving the thirty-ninth lash, Justine faints and has to be revived. Keep in mind the number thirty-nine, it is significant in understanding the film and will be mentioned later.

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The Medieval Church

That leads us to the prostitution charge. Why is it there?

It’s not part of Sade’s story, but its inclusion here makes sense if we remember that Sade is an atheist and condemns the Catholic Church as the charlatan of illusionary constructs. (See Justine, Part One: The Novel).

On the other hand, Jac Avila’s cinematic version of Justine does not abandon Christian ideology, choosing instead to confront it particularly over the Church’s attitude toward women.

Is the virtuous Justine turned into a modern version of Mary Magdalene, the supposed woman of the evening, to argue this point?

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If so, the flogging scene with the priest standing by tells us two things that set the tone for the film.

First,  doubts are cast on how we see Church doctrine when it comes to the female cause. After all, there is no real Biblical evidence that Mary Magdalene was an adulteress or profited from sex, though the patriarchal Medieval Church hinted otherwise.

Nevertheless, women were regarded as second class citizens, the Virgin Mary aside. She avoids what churchmen abhorred in the Early Middle Ages, the sensual woman. After all, she never really had sex.

Jac Avila challenges this minimalist view of the women in two other characters in the narrative, Rosalie (Mila Joya) and Omphale (Beatriz Rivera), who are present at Justine’s punishment.

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Rosalie, Omphale, and Justine share the common bond of torture and pain, a point that becomes more important when the film delves into Rodin and his amusement with the fairer sex.

In fact, the girls are nervously watching a punishment that is already familiar to them.

That leads us to the film’s second theme: the empowered woman. Jac Avila’s Justine is hardly Sade’s innocent, hapless soul imploring Heaven’s Grace to save her.

She has her own will that leads to self-created problems . . . and she pays in the end.

But more on this feminist view later.

You Can Only Die Once

After her bloody punishment, Justine is taken to the pillory and secured to await the dawn.

The spectators are informed that by daybreak Justine’s execution will be settled upon since she has “but one life to live.” So much for the years of hard labor in the original sentence.

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Juliette (Cortney Wills), a witness to the whipping, walks over and touches Justine’s cheek, asking how “you, with a very sweet face, find yourself in such a dreadful plight.”

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A tearful Justine replies that were she to tell her story, she “would accuse the Hand of Heaven and I dare not.”

The dictates of her unwavering faith are understandable, though a bit over-the-top. But there’s more. Justine’s troubles are of her own making. Even for those who conceive of God as the great clock maker (popular with the Deists in Sade’s time), the miserable wretch has to bear some responsibility for her actions.

Sade would not disagree, but Jac Avila’s alternative look at an empowered Justine flies in the face of the French aristocrat.

Remember, empowerment means making choices.

Pounds of Flesh

The executioner (Eric Calancha) puts aside his whip and sodomizes his helpless victim.

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Rodin (Jac Avila as actor) approaches Juliette and introduces himself. She responds with “Madame de Lorsange.”

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By this time, the executioner has finished with his pound of flesh, so Rodin politely excuses himself to duck behind the stocks for his own Sadean go at Justine. Juliette looks on with patience, thoroughly amused.

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In the face of all plausibility, Justine calmly begins as Rodin pumps away. Apparently anal violation at the hands of a pedophile sparks casual conversation. It’s a parody of Sade, of course, whose own narrative of Justine’s travails is so outré as to garner chuckles. But does Jac Avila also parody the Church in a way Sade ignores?

If that’s not enough grist for the mill, consider the film’s flashback narrators.  Justine, and later Juliette, break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera, engaging the audience directly with a more pointed method than a simple literary first person.

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What’s going on here?

A lot, actually, and it sets up a very entertaining and highly recommended film.

In the next post we’ll find out the details of Dubois, Saint-Florent, and Bressac.

*          *         *

One of the endearing aspects of indie film is the cooperation that is built into everyone connected with the project. When money and time are limited, the cast accepts responsibilities to assist the director of cinematography.

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Justine, Part Two: Novel to Film

by Rich Moreland, December 2016

Jess Franco's Justine 1969

Jess Franco’s Justine, 1969

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.”

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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

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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.”

When the count and his valet, Jasmin, realize Justine is watching them, they tie ja7her nude and spread-eagled to four trees to frighten her.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Others

ja14There are other characters Jac Avila places in his film: Dubois, the female gang member who helps Justine escape from prison and the traveler Saint-Florent, whom Justine rescues from the gang.

After treating her with care, Saint-Florent takes Justine into the forest as darkness closes in and knocks her unconscious with his walking stick.

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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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*          *          *

Chris Boger's Justine, 1977

Chris Boger’s Justine, 1977

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.

*          *          *

Justine is available for purchase at Vermeerworks.com.

Jac Avila can be contacted at Pachamama Films or via his blog.

 

 

 

 

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Justine, Part One: The Novel

by Rich Moreland, December 2016

Jac Avila’s adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s novel, Justine, is now available from Pacahamama/Decadent Films. Before taking a critical look at the movie, it’s helpful to have an understanding Sade’s work.

All references to the original story, Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue, posted here come from the Oxford University Press paperback edition published in 2012. The translator is John Phillips.

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ja200Born in 1740, the Marquis de Sade was a French aristocrat during the Age of Enlightenment. His proclivity for debauching young girls and his fascination with sodomy (anal sex) landed him in prison on more than one occasion.

During his time in the Bastille, the prolific author and playwright penned Justine. Published in 1791 after the French Revolution, the novel is an early example of pornography, eighteenth century style.

Sade’s story is a satirical work. ja201The marquis rails against the Church and society and marvels at the libertine (free thinking) way of life.

He uses Justine, a pathetic girl who tries to preserve her virtue in the face of overwhelming vice, as the punching bag to justify his philosophy.

The Story in Brief

At age twelve Justine and her older sister Juliette fall upon hard times. Though born of nobility, they are orphaned and penniless and forced to go their separate ways after leaving the protection of a convent. Fifteen years later, they meet again when Juliette is thirty and Justine well into her twenties.

sade_etching_1Juliette lives a pleasurable life of vice, Justine a miserable one of virtue. Despite her desperate pleas to Heaven to protect her, Justine suffers a series of tribulations that include graphically described tortures and repeated sodomy.

Her tormenters come from all corners of society: criminal gangs, aristocrats, and churchmen among them.

Imprisoned by disreputable characters who abuse her incessantly, Justine is accused of various crimes, branded a whore, and is in the hands of the authorities when Juliette, known now as Madame de Lorsange, rescues her.

The novel is a flashback in which Justine recounts her miseries. Virtue is rewarded only briefly, however, as the poor lass is struck dead by a lightning bolt.

Influences on the Novelist

The Marquis de Sade was undoubtedly familiar with the fairy tales of fellow Frenchmen Charles Perrault, particularly “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Bluebeard” and incorporated elements of both (as well as sordid legends from around the world), in his novel.

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Justine is often lost in the darkness of the woods, a terrifying experience and a reminder of Little Red Riding Hood’s dire straits.

Falling into the hands of one “bad wolf” after another, she ends up in foreboding environs typical of the Gothic writing of Sade’s day such as castles, forbidden rooms, and hidden monasteries where tortures occur.

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Because Justine is trusting and gullible, she is often abandoned after being abused setting her up to be easily duped by the next person who comes long.

As this abysmal cycle continues, Justine meets other young women who likewise suffer indignities and sometimes death as do Bluebeard’s wives.

sade_donatien_alphonse_francois_marquis_de_justine_ou_les_malheurs_de_d5840801gThe Libertine

Justine is as much a philosophical statement as a decadent novel about libertine sexuality and anti-Church diatribes.

Incidentally, during the Enlightenment period, “libertine” originally referred to those who considered themselves atheists. Over time, the label was expanded to include sexually obscene written works.

Sade explores this further when Justine morphs into the lengthier , The New Justine, published in 1797. It is more pornographic than its older cousin.

Sade’s Message

The Marquis’ original Justine carries two prominent themes.

marquisdesade2The first justifies its libertine leanings. Virtue is of little account. When Justine escapes prison with the help of Dubois and her gang, she is told, “abandon the path of virtue which has never brought you success.” Trust your instincts, the gang believes, and advises Justine that “moral feelings are deceptive, only physical sensations are true.”

In other words, vice is rewarded, a message Justine hears throughout the novel.

The second theme centers on religion. Sade is an atheist in a time when the hegemony of the Catholic Church in France is coming under fire.

The “creator” is a fantasy, the gang informs Justine. The only reality is the here and now and like a dog, they assert, why should we “abandon the bone for the shadows and renounce real pleasures for the sake of illusions?”

If anything in the state of nature (the time before societies existed according to the French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau) is bad, why does nature allow it to exist?

This is Sade’s central question.

But the author is not finished. Later when Justine is under the thumb of the perverted monks, one of them, Clement, takes pride in their impiety, finding pleasure in the “egoism, cruelty, and debauchery” that offends “the mythical God.”

260c1b95dac55720bcb251a30a113aa7Rebirth

All of this is not to say that Sade believes that an end is an end. In fact, he has his own version of regeneration or eternal life, if you will.

The Comte de Bressac tells Justine that matter is “reborn in other guises” because “all men, all animals, all plants . . . grow, feed, and are destroyed.” They go back into the earth where they “never truly die but merely undergo variation and modification.”

Later Rodin justifies murder using the same logic.

“If nothing dies or is destroyed, [or] is ever lost in Nature,” he says, it’s “just waiting “to reappear immediately in new forms.”

To deny this process (even if it is what society calls murder) is the “real crime,” the scientist claims.

Finally, Sade accounts for man’s perversities.

From Clement, the defiled Justine learns that “there are no tastes (sadomasochism included) that do not derive from the kind of make-up we have been given by Nature.” He expands on this inborn deviancy by stating the “pleasures of the senses are always dependent on the imagination.”

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When Justine assails him for his “taste for cruelty and horror,” Clement retorts, “If Nature were offended by these tastes it would not inspire us [to express them].”

*          *          *

So we have Justine, a novel that tackles Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s social contract popular in eighteenth century France. Man is born into a State of Nature where there are no moral laws and must enter into communities to preserve himself.

Of course, Sade has his own libertine opinion on the outcome.

Next we’ll look at the characters from Justine Jac Avila has taken for his adaptation of the narrative.

 

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