Cruel Passion Review

The seventies were a good time for Sadeian slices of cinema. The was the decade that produced Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò and regularly plundered the Marquis’ writings for ninety-or-so minutes of sexploitation. There were plenty of big screen Justines and Eugénies, oftentimes from France, occasionally from Sweden. Deep Throat’s Harry Reems starred in one of them, whilst Jesus Franco put his name to at least half a dozen. British cinema contributed two features: an experimental black and white Justine financed by the British Film Institute’s Production Board; and Cruel Passion, yet another take on Justine, but of a decidedly more salacious nature.

As with most de Sade derived movies Cruel Passion is only a loose adaptation of its source. Justine and her sister Juliette are freshly orphaned teenagers living in a nunnery. Justine is the virtuous one, Juliette decidedly less so. Either way both become targets for the rogue’s gallery that makes up the picture’s supporting cast. First it’s the Sapphic advances of the Mother Superior and then, as the pair desert the nunnery in favour of a move to London, pretty much everyone they encounter along the way. Thieves, grave robbers, a cocaine-snorting sexual degenerate, a Lord, a Pastor - all seemingly need just one look at young Justine for the lustful impulses to kick into overdrive.

In typically Sadeian fashion Cruel Passion essentially reduces its narrative to little more than a catalogue of events - some erotic, some brutal - on an ever-bleaker downward spiral. In one respect this makes for perfect exploitation cinema: the film is almost solely a collection of bodice ripping moments, nude scenes and episodes of extreme violence, sexual or otherwise. Furthermore much of it is surprisingly strong for a British feature from the seventies - perhaps that’s what comes from having a Scandinavian director in charge? In fact, it is only with this release that Cruel Passion finds itself finally uncut in the UK. The original submission to the BBFC back in 1977 met with almost three minutes of excisions and even the previous DVD release (issued by Redemption in 2007) was subject to cuts.

Yet whilst you could never accuse Cruel Passion of being dull, it does struggle to remain involving. I have my doubts as to whether the intentions of director-producer Chris Boger and screenwriter Ian Cullen (better known for his acting credits, most notably his six-year stint on Z-Cars as Joe Skinner) were in any way similar to Pasolini’s when he made Salò. Narrative denial was key to that film - even though everything was seemingly permitted - but here it just feels like an oversight. The final half-hour is genuinely unsettling, though that doesn’t let the preceding hour off the hook. Too many characters are nothing more than ciphers, especially our central Justine. We are repeatedly told that she is the embodiment of all innocence and beauty - and apparently that is enough. Koo Stark looks the part, but she doesn’t really have the talent to act it (and any frisson as a result of her being Prince Andrew’s former girlfriend has long since dissipated).

The one area where Cruel Passion unanimously succeeds is in its look. Long before his association with the Coen Brothers and credits on the likes of The Shawshank Redemption and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Roger Deakins served as cinematographer here. He was relatively fresh out of the National Film School and had previously worked on documentaries and student shorts. Cruel Passion marked his first job on a proper feature and it’s an impressive debut. The opening sequence, in particular, is just beautiful: a procession of nuns making their way to a graveyard through thick morning mist. Deakins had a habit, long before Hollywood came calling, of making low-budget British features look terrific (see Defence of the Realm, for example) and this is no different. It comes as no surprise to learn of a Blu-ray release - Region A-locked - in the US.

Deakins’ contribution goes a long way, as does that final half-hour; “arthouse meets grindhouse,” as Simon Sheridan put it in his account of homegrown sex cinema, Keeping the British End Up. The remaining pleasures are more likely to satisfy the latter crowd. There’s a slight fascination in seeing, during the opening act, a Brit take on ‘nunsploitation’. Despite arguably kickstarting the trend with Ken Russell’s The Devils in 1971 our national cinema never really took to this particular sub-genre - only Nigel Wingrove’s Sacred Flesh, from much, much later, springs to mind. (Ken Russell also proves influential in the over-the-top Wagner-scored dream sequences, zombie nuns and burning crucifixes among them.) Similarly cult fans should enjoy spotting the familiar faces in the supporting cast: Glory Annen from Norman J. Warren’s Prey; Ann Michelle of Psychomania fame; Martin Potter, whose entire career seemed to err towards the cult-ish - Satyricon, The Year of the Sex Olympics, even classic-era Doctor Who.

And so, a tentative recommendation for those of you inclined towards British cinema’s less travelled paths. There are some major flaws, certainly, and Cruel Passion was never going to challenge for inclusion in the BFI’s Flipside range. But it’s unlikely enough - darker, edgier, bleaker than our usual sexploitation fare - to justify a look. Furthermore Nucleus Films have done a terrific job of bringing the film to UK disc. All cuts from previous editions have been undone and the overall presentation quality is excellent. There are some dodgy patches on the soundtrack (most likely inherent in the original production) but otherwise we find the film looking as good as new: original aspect ratio, near blemish free print, excellent clarity and detail. The additional features may be a little light, though these too show signs of extra effort. There’s an alternate credit sequence (Cruel Passion having been released as Justine in the States), the original spoiler-heavy theatrical trailer and an excellent gallery offering up all manner of behind-the-scenes production stills, VHS sleeves and theatrical poster designs. Keen to cross-promote, trailers for numerous other Nucleus titles are also included.

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