Every movie is made for a reason. More often than not that reason is nothing more than the rapid commodification of something resembling entertainment that is regurgitated out onto the market simply to make money. Other films eschew any concerns of commercial success in service of presenting the artist’s raw, unfiltered expression of ideas. In the simplest of terms, this is what distinguishes an art film from a commercial one, but whether or not it is a good art film depends on how effectively those ideas can be conveyed to the intended audience. Justine is undeniably an art film as the graphic violence, abstract plot, and incestuous necrophilia (you heard me) are indicative of director Alejandro Hernandez’s uncompromising vision, unburdened by concerns of mass appeal or commercial viability.
The film starts with the titular Justine (Dan Zapata) bruised and battered, telling her story, seemingly to a nurse in a hospital, although the location isn’t explicitly clear. In the retelling, we see the events that lead up to her brutalized state as she is subjected to strange, horrific experiments by the vicious Dr. Rodin (Enrique Diaz Duran) and his colleague. The story is loosely based upon Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue by the Marquis de Sade, and while this text has been adapted to film numerous times, it’s safe to say that this is by far the most graphic and explicit version. While this version does try to pay homage to the classical style of the source material with its verbose and metaphorical dialogue, it’s less faithful to the storyline and subtext of the original work.
De Sade’s novel is widely regarded as a misanthropic commentary on how those who try to lead a virtuous life will ultimately suffer for it, while those who are overtly wicked will prosper, but Hernandez instead concentrates his focus on the more Torture Porny aspects of de Sade’s writing. This version is less about the futility of a young woman’s journey through a morally bankrupt society and more of a Stockholm Syndrome “love” story that takes place in a torture chamber. While I understand the intention behind using more poetic, metaphorical dialogue, it does make the evolving relationship between Justine and Rodin unnecessarily cumbersome to understand if not downright incomprehensible.
A purely cynical read of the film overall might suggest that the flowery dialogue, classical music, and Roman Numerals that separate the chapter breaks might be an overly aspirational attempt to inject profundity into a story that is, at its core, a very base Torture Porn. That wouldn’t be an entirely fair read, however, because despite shortcomings in some areas, there are other aspects of Justine that are executed extremely well.
The acting, for one, is truly impressive and while both leads shine in their respective roles and do the best with what they’ve got to work with, it’s really Dr. Rodin that steals the show. From the physicality to the pathos to the pure wickedness that seems to ooze out of him, Diaz Duran brings out a menace and a believability to the character that is utterly mesmerizing to watch. From a technical proficiency standpoint, this film is also incredibly well made with excellent cinematography and some top-notch brutal gore effects. A more minimalist approach to the dialogue with just enough information to move the story along and a complete excising of the VO narration would have helped this production considerably. Except in rare cases, VO is generally a storytelling crutch used by filmmakers who don’t feel confident that their images can speak for themselves and the visceral imagery in this film has plenty to say on its own.
Justine certainly swings for the fences and while its story is a bit too muddled to reach the emotional and intellectual resonance it so clearly seeks, I do admire it for attempting. This is not to say that it is rendered unwatchable as a result, far from it in fact, and the exquisite viscera and unfiltered brutality alone will make it well worth the price of admission for many gore fans. And the incestuous necrophilia? Well, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Availability: Upcoming Release
Film is releasing in 2023, current date unknown as of review. Visit https://tetrovideo.com for updates and info.