A Tale of Two Sisters – Rediscovering ‘Cruel Passion’ – (UK 1977 – 99 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - June 04, 2017
A Tale of Two Sisters – Rediscovering ‘Cruel Passion’ – (UK 1977 – 99 mins)

Better than its reputation suggests, the atmospheric ‘Cruel Passion’ is a pretty good period drama which mixed eroticism with human suffering, creating an interesting, if rather depressing, tale of two rather different sisters.

18th Century England, and orphaned teenage sisters Justine (Koo Stark) and Juliette (Lydia Lisle) are expelled from their strict orphanage and thrown into the murky world of prostitution, which Juliette enthusiastically accepts. Justine however, wants no part of this sordid world and decides to run away and find her own virtuous way of living. Unfortunately for her though, this decision leads to a series of misadventures, and ultimately, tragedy.

Also known as ‘Marquis de Sade’s Justine’, I think this movie has been wrongly labelled as ‘soft-core’ over the years. Yes, there is plenty of flesh and racy moments to be seen, but there is also much more to the plot than this, with some genuine moments of human drama and frailty thrown in.

Beautiful Koo Stark was suitably naive as the delicate and virginal Justine. You really do feel sorry for her character, as she’s continuously used and abused, before finally being tossed aside (literally) at the film’s rather downbeat ending. Lydia Lisle was also very good as Juliette, the sister who embraces her vices with unashamed glee. As the roguish Lord Carlisle; a cold-eyed Martin Potter looked slightly uncomfortable at times, while ‘The Virgin Witch’s Ann Michelle has a small role as a brothel madam.

Director Chris Boger’s only other offering was the 1974 Geraldine Chaplin drama ‘Summer of Silence’, and he did a decent job here, working with a pedestrian script by ‘Z Cars’ actor Ian Cullen. Roger Deakins’ excellent photography certainly elevated the production, which looked quite beautiful at times. Deakins would go on to work on many Coen brothers movies, including ‘Fargo’ (’96), ‘The Big Lebowski’ (’98), and ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007).

The film’s ending is pretty grim, with Justine meeting a terrible fate, which made me think back to when I watched Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Virgin Spring’, for the first time.

While it may be too slow for some, ‘Cruel Passion’ was an interesting attempt to mix controversy with serious drama. Throwing in lesbian nuns and perverse nobility, it has enough going for it to interest the ‘Nunsploitation’ crowd, while the literary crowd may be put off by all the sleazy shenanigans. But, being as we are in pure de Sade territory, you wouldn’t expect anything less.

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