After The Blood of Fu Manchu, producer Harry Alan Towers and Jess Franco wanted to make a more adult film and this movie was the result, made with a million dollar budget, which isn’t much for some people but would be one of Franco’s largest budgets.
There were still some issues, like how Rosemary Dexter (Eye in the Labyrinth) was supposed to play the lead, yet she was moved to the smaller role of Claudine when Romina Power was chosen by a Hollywood money man to play the lead. Franco was unhappy with her in the movie, saying “most of the time she didn’t even know we were shooting” and that he had to rewrite the story and move away from DeSade as she was so hard to reach.
Justine and Juliette (Maria Roma) are sisters who live in a convent, a place they’re taken from when he dies and leaves his gold behind. While Juliette goes to stay at Madame de Buisson’s (Carmen de Lirio) house of ill repute, learning the skills of the oldest business, her sister Justine goes to the church, where a priest introduces her to du Harpin (Akim Tamiroff), who hires her on as a maid, but it’s all a scheme to steal from his master and use her as a stooge, yet Justine escapes prison thanks to Madame Dubois (Mercedes McCambridge, can this movie have more great actors in it? Yes, it can.).
While all this is going on, Juliette and another prostitute named Claudine (yes, Rosemary Dexter who was supposed to be the lead) kill their boss and a client, stealing gold and going on the run all the way to Madame Dubois. The men there end up trying to assault her more innocent sister, as she runs to the home of an artist named Raymond (Harald Leipnitz) before being caught in the murderous games of the de Bressacs (Horst Frank and Sylva Koscina), which ends up getting her branded with an M — for murderess — on her breast.
I kind of love that every decision that Juliette makes is stuff like killing people and drowing her crime partners while Justine ends up trapped in all manner of Little Annie Fanny situations like being kidnapped by Father Antonin (Jack Palance) and his order of ascetics. Instead of studying and meditating, they’re making filthy love to anything that moves. When Father Antonin offers to free Justine from this world by making her a sacrifice, but she escapes yet again, finally finding her way back to her sister.
Meanwhile, the Marquis de Sade (Klaus Kinski) has hallucinated this all while stuck in prison, obsessed as always with female flesh. I mean, when Rosalba Neri is in the story you’re imagining, wouldn’t you? Also — just as a warning — Rosemary Dexter was 16 when she made this. Fair warning.
People often ask me, “What’s the one Jess Franco movie I should watch?” Depending on how well you can handle this material, this would be the best produced of his movies, filled with gorgeous settings, period perfect costumes, a wonderful Bruno Nicolai score and perhaps the most focused Franco I’ve seen, despite the fact that he wasn’t getting to make the movie that he wanted to make. And if you’re a maniac, I have a bunch more to tell you about.