Set against the backdrop of the Nazi occupation of France, VICE AND VIRTUE (La vice et le vertu) is a stylized retelling of the Marquis de Sade's Justine, as envisioned by one of cinema's most provocative filmmakers: Roger Vadim (Blood and Roses, Barbarella). Two sisters navigate very different courses as they struggle to survive within the morally corrupt fascist regime. Juliette (Annie Girardot, The Piano Teacher) is surrounded by the spoils of war, being the mistress of an SS colonel (Robert Hossein). Meanwhile, Justine (Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), whose husband is seized by fascists on their wedding day, is taken to a chateau in the country, where she is groomed to become a concubine for the Nazi elite.
“Who is he really, the hand or the tool?”
When adapting a piece of literature, you’re tasked with taking a direct word-for-word path or using the original text as inspiration and charting a new course. Faithfulness to a source material is subjective, as numerous novels are adapted into films each and every year with some succeeding better than others. In the case of ‘Vice and Virtue’ director Roger Vadim took the Marquis De Sade’s story ‘Justine’ and transported it into the last years of WWII as Germany slowly loses ground to the Allies. This should have been a fantastic treatment of this text but in the end, it gets muddled in theatricality and it’s ultimate allegory becomes far too blunt to penetrate beyond the surface.
The film opens in Paris and quickly cuts to a montage of war footage as English and American troops begin the initial skirmishes with the German army ahead of the D-Day invasion. In a note of serenity we meet Justine, Catherine Deneuve, as she walks into a chapel to be married. In a flash, her husband to be is arrested by SS officers for being a member of the French Underground. Panicked and with no one else to turn to, Justine seeks out her sister Juliette who spends her time in the company of occupying German officers, in particular the aging General von Bamberg.
Juliette, unwilling to aid her sister in her hour of need turns her away. Later that evening as Juliette shares her Paris apartment with the General, the cunning and dashing SS Colonel Erik Schörndorf invites himself in, casting a cloud of doom over their private party. Justine arrives moments later to see Juliette again, only this time to thank her for aiding in the release of her husband. Only Justine had nothing to do with Justine’s husband’s escape. With the sinister SS officer present, the two sisters are then charted on a course of survival, each doing what they must. Juliette freely gives herself to the officer, while Justine holds onto her chastity and is sent to the Commandery, a beautiful German castle, to be groomed as a concubine for an elite group of Nazi officers.
What ensues is a game, Juliette plays hers in order to survive, constantly plotting and thinking how, even in the face of a German defeat, she will seduce her way towards and Allied officer. On the other hand there is Justine, who must obey every command, endure every sadistic affront or risk punishment for not only herself, but for each of her fellow captives. This is ultimately a character study, can someone who has traded away everything she’s cared for and still hold onto something that resembles a soul? Can a woman who is faced with constant degradation remain righteous and pure?
Theres are heavy themes to tackle for any movie, and setting the film at the end of World War II was a smart idea on the part of Roger Vadim. What better way to highlight torture and degradation as a systemic level than the Nazi’s? Unfortunately, after a tense and thrilling first half this film stretches its premise entirely too thin. Too much time has to pass to tell the rest of this story, we’re meant to believe that months pass at a stretch punctuated with intermittent war footage showcasing the progression of the Allied forces until the German army is left in shambles and the ultimate lunacy of the Commandery is fully exposed.
The only problem we’re never left to spend much time with each segment to let the scene resonate. This movie easily could have gone the way of a “women in chains” exploitation film, but it tries to stay above that sort of material with profound speeches about the human condition and how people live their lives to survive. Given that this is an adaptation of a work by the Marquis De Sade, one would expect a certain level of sadistic behavior, but things aren’t explicitly laid out, only eluded to. While this film in no way needed to go the rout of something like ‘Saló’ where things are taken to an incredible extreme, it also plays things entirely too safe. And then because of the truncated time frame, seeing Americans lay siege on the Commandery is almost comical.
It’s a frustrating movie. It is a work that strives to be something more, something with a voice that speaks beyond what each incredibly well composed image shows us. There is so much to view and admire, from the incredible performances to the richly beautiful cinematography, but alas, there just isn’t much of a movie here. Things become far too theatrical in the last act to the point that it stops being a movie and is more attune to a stage production. In fact I started feeling like I was watching a black and white version of Laurence Olivier’s ‘Henry V’ where it intermittently felt like a film and then a theater production and then like a film again.
As a piece of cinema, it is a beautiful work to look at, so on that level alone it’s worth viewing. However, if you’re expecting to see a piece that offers some form of enlightenment about the human condition, it is sadly absent in ‘Vice and Virtue.’
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘Vice and Virtue’ arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Classics on a region A locked BR25 disc. Housed in a standard Blu-ray case, it features reversible artwork that replicates the original poster artwork in the opposite side.
I love black and white movies - especially when they’re given such incredible HD transfers as the one ’Vice and Virtue’ enjoys. With a subtle grain structure present throughout, detail is incredible rich and stable throughout the film. Black levels are also spot on allowing for a wonderfully inky image with fantastic shadows that create a rich sense of depth. Without any discernible print damage to speak of, this transfer is a near perfect showcase for cinematographer Marcel Grignon’s work.
‘Vice and Virtue’ features a LCPM mono track that is clear of any pops, hisses, or breaks. The mix is spot on, even for a mono track it creates an incredible layered sense of imaging. The opening celebration sequence is quick evidence of this mixes power - it features character dialogue, background music, splashing sounds from the pool and constant chattering from the background cast - and all of it lives beautifully.
As wonderful as the majority of this track is, there are a couple of anomalies that kick this track back a notch or two. Occasionally some of the spoken dialogue feels flat, almost as if the actor had been dubbed. It’s probably indicative of the source but it it is rather distracting. Another issue is some of the music used, in particular scenes that take place at the Commandery, can swell to extreme high notes that cause some rattling and distortion. Otherwise this is a fairly solid audio track with much to appreciate.
Original Theatrical Trailer: (HD 3:11) This trailer does a fair job of marketing the film, but it suggests more time is spent at the Commandery than actually is.
Given the work of the Marquis de Sade and the nature of the stories he wrote, there is plenty of allegory to be found in his works comparable to modern times and places, but in order to do this, you have to have a deft touch and be careful not to overplay your hand. ‘Vice and Virtue’ starts out strong and earnest, but it can’t stand on it’s own for long. It’s a beautiful looking film and this HD presentation from Kino Classics is simply stunning. It sports a fine audio track as well, I just wish the film was better than it ultimately is, because I want to recommend this movie more than I do. Give it a rent.