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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 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.

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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 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].”

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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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