The George Cukor and Joseph Strick directed all-star melodrama is a kitsch disaster that fans of the accidentally ludicrous may find very much to their taste.
There were two films called Justine shot in 1969. One, the lower budget and less respectable of the pair, was an early Jess Franco exploration of the world of the Marquis De Sade, and is probably the better known of the two these days – it’s certainly had bigger home viewing releases and Franco’s cult status ensures a steady audience for the movie. The other was a troubled costume drama that went through two directors, upset fans of the novels it was based on and rapidly sank into obscurity, destined to forever confuse researchers who type ‘Justine 1969’ into search engines.
Yet this Justine is probably the camper and more ludicrous of the two movies – something helped by the fact that Franco’s film is oddly restrained and respectable, admittedly. But as I sat through this often plotless, indulgent and determinedly, desperately decadent affair, I couldn’t help but think how it could easily fit into a festival of gleefully kitsch cinema from the era, sitting alongside the likes of The Valley of the Dolls, Myra Breckinridge and Angel, Angel Down We Go as an example of lurid, soapy excess.
However, I suspect audiences at such an event would be shifting uncomfortably in their seats, as this 110-minute movie mixes its high camp and histrionics with a rather plodding pace. It’s fine for very little to happen in a film, as long as that little is engaging. In the case of Justine, the film is perhaps missing that vital element of ludicrousness that it needs. It is, in many ways, a terrible film, but fails to be quite terrible enough to become entertaining, and it seems a little too self-conscious to give over fully to the deliberate trashiness that the movie needs to make it work. The result is a genuine curiosity. The actors and the director(s) seem to be taking it very seriously as if the inherent ludicrousness of the affair had escaped them, and so the end result is often rather stilted where it should be outrageous. There are enough moments to inadvertently entertain (the planned entertainment value of the film fails miserably) but you really want someone like Russ Meyer to be handling this story, knowingly stripping it of its pomposity and allowing the trashy, pulp fiction underbelly to shine.
Based on Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet but stripped of the complexity of the novels, Justine features a cast of big names and unlikely co-stars – Dirk Bogarde, Michael York, Anouk Aimée, Anna Karina, John Vernon, George Baker – in a story that for the most part listlessly follows the lives and loves of a bunch of rich ex-pats living in Alexandria in 1938, just as British rule gives way to an Egyptian regime. The story centres around the personality-free schoolteacher and poet Darley (York), who is friendly with British consular officer Pursewarden (Bogarde), and who meets Justine (Aimée), wife of Nessim (Vernon), as she searches child-brothels for her missing daughter. Justine is – or at least has been – having an affair with Pursewarden, but turns her attentions to Darley, and for the next hour or so, the film is a fairly plotless soap opera in which the last days of colonial decadence are played out in a serious of parties, oddly passionate love-making and inter-connecting relationships with a series of often thinly-drawn characters who we meet briefly and who have little in the way of personality, but whom we are expected to remember later on when the story finally begins. Justine and her husband are, it turns out, involved in gun-smuggling to Jewish groups in Palestine, aiding the rebels as they attempt to overthrow British rule. Justine’s affairs, it seems, are less about passion and more about politics, though what her sleeping her way through ex-pat high society does for her cause is lost in the muddled plot.
Just how much of the film’s messiness has to do with the fact that original director Joseph Strick was fired midway through and replaced as director by George Cukor is uncertain (and while Cukor gets sole credit, it’s hard to see how much of the film can really be called his and how much of it was Strick’s). Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine the original director making a worse job of the film, as Cukor’s cut is heavily padded, often incoherent (a narration by York seems to be an after-the-fact effort to have the story make sense) and needlessly bloated. Given how little happens, the fact that this drags on for nearly two hours – and quite honestly, it feels longer – seems extraordinarily indulgent. And York is not an actor to hang a film like this on. He spends the who movie looking confused and delivers every line in a monotone manner. The supporting cast does a little better, but they are struggling with weak characters and bad dialogue. Justine herself seems contradictory and thinly written, little more than a beautiful mannequin for the men to obsess over.
Yet having said all this, Justine is oddly fascinating, in a car crash sort of way. It looks suitably lush and decadent and is always willing to throw in a ludicrous visual moment – Aimée stripping off to splash about in the ocean, a belly dancer who turns out to be male (the film certainly likes to toy with sexuality), moments of splashy violence – to keep you amused. It has the feel of a dubbed movie, while the odd mix of location shoots (Strick) and obvious studio sets (Cukor) give it a curious element of unreality. And it is, underneath its pretensions, so lip-smackingly trashy and camp that it has all the makings of a cult classic. That it hasn’t achieved that level of appeal is, I suspect, because it is more of a fascinating disaster than an entertaining one – too boring to work for fans of the gleefully trashy. But if you have an interest in movies that are spectacular, ludicrous bombs, then Justine is certainly worth seeking out.
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