Vice and virtue are two concepts that are at the heart of many works by The Marquis de Sade. The two things are not diametrically opposed, although the moralism of vice recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous might want you to believe otherwise. In a way, the reason a program like AA was so successful is that it posits virtue as the opposite of vice, giving folks recovering from addiction something to feel good about–”I may have done wrong before, but now I am in a much better place than those pitiful souls who are still in the grips of addiction.” Yet, this differentiation is not particularly needed from a more medical standpoint. The divine marquis did not ponder addiction–as far as I know–although the repetitive nature of his prison-generated writing may look like a noticeable symptom. He personified the two approaches to life in a couple of his most famous characters: the unfortunate and virtuous Justine and her wicked sister Juliette.
Written in 1787, a definitive version of Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue was published ten years later. About a young woman in pursuit of goodness and charity, the gothic tale unfolds as a series of fraught incidents for Justine, who constantly finds herself in awful, fantastic and abusive situations. This was followed by Juliette, a book about Justine’s sister who dabbles in unwholesome and vindictive behavior, which only allows her to get further and more powerful in the world. Lurid and ironic, these two characters from the mind of Sade have become virtually archetypal, although few films have portrayed them directly. Roger Vadim’s 1963 film Vice and Virtue is one that takes a number of liberties with the original material, opening with a brief introduction: “…History is here but a pretext, a background, more transposed than realistic… To speak of vice and virtue required an era in which passions had reached their peak. That’s why I chose to set the film in the 1944-45 period.”
Pasolini is infamously well known for transposing Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom on to fascist Italy in World War II with the height of Sadeian cinema, Salò, but twelve years earlier, Vadim did much the same thing, bringing the lore of Justine and Juliette to occupied France. The two films are similar in that they have lusciously beautiful qualities to the cinematography and casting, but Vice and Virtue does not come close to the level of sensational violence that Pasolini showed later on. The imagery of Vadim’s film is absolutely wonderful, with a number of interesting set pieces and occasional gothic flourishes. Early on we see some kind of Nazi occupied athletic association that for some reason has a boxing ring that opens out onto a large in-ground pool, leading to the exact situations one would imagine. We see at least two people punched or pushed out of the ring, splashing into the water. Here, we are introduced to our main characters, with Juliette (Annie Girardot), her lover General von Bamberg (O.E. Hasse), and his eventual murderer and usurper SS Colonel Erik Schörndorf (Robert Hossein). Soon enough, Justine (Catherine Deneuve) rushes in as well, pleading with Juliette to use her power and influence on Bamberg to free her new husband Jean, who was recently arrested. The discussion plays out in a steamy sauna that hauntingly foreshadows the battlefield gunsmoke near the end of the film.
Soon after, Schörndorf visits Bamberg, poisoning his champagne in retaliation for the latter’s disloyalty. Even sooner after this, Juliette organically flows into the role of Schörndorf’s mistress, accompanying him to torture sessions, etc. When Juliette talked to her pleading sister in the previous scene, she stated, “I’d rather ride in a Mercedes. Some are pro-German, others pro-Russian, pro-English. I’ve always been pro-me and I’ll stay that way… I’m a whore and it’s harder than you think.” Indeed, Juliette is a quintessential Sade character, proud of her prostitution, unashamed, and aware of the power it gives her. This selfishness exists in the human nature that Sade talked about and commended so often. The scene of Juliette witnessing a round of torture is extremely memorable for how particularly not-Sadeian it is, however. When Schörndorf enters the interrogation room, Juliette stays outside watching the action through a two-way mirror. Dramatic and agitated music arises on the soundtrack, and the audience ends up watching Juliette’s face as she watches and reacts to the torture. Sade is known for the events in his work being pornographically visible, which is of course a quality that Pasolini continued with in Salò. In Vice and Virtue, we see that Vadim decided to go with a certain amount of restraint for whatever reasons. Still, the sequence of Juliette reacting to the action out of frame is memorable and harrowing. Afterwards, Schörndorf waxes poetic when he rejoins Juliette: “The sight of suffering inflames the nerves more powerfully than pleasure.”
The second half of the film particularly involves Justine being taken away to nothing less than a gothic castle in order to join a group of women specifically kept there as sex slaves for Nazi officers. They are each referred to by number, Justine being 112. Where this still has quite a bit in common with Salò, this is where Vice and Virtue also begins to take on characteristics similar to Tinto Brass’ brilliantly shot nazisploitation film of 1976, Salon Kitty. In that film we see women who are custom picked for prostitution in elite brothels, where they gather compromising information on various Nazi officials who can then be blackmailed later by their own colleagues. Justine’s experience in this setting is much like Salon Kitty, but also resembles scenes and ideas from Pauline Réage’s classic tale of erotica The Story of O. While the garb is different than what O wears, the flowing white gowns and dark leather belts we see Justine and the other women wearing is just as much a uniform. In one particular shot of Justine on the roof of the castle, looking out as if desiring a rescuer, things appear to be a definitive, gothic fairytale. As we watch her being held captive, her evil sister Juliette casually lounges around reading newspapers.
Aside from Salò and Salon Kitty, Vice and Virtue is reminiscent of a number of other films to come later, that deal with sadism, power, and the aesthetics particular to World War II: The Night Porter (1974), The Damned (1969), and to a lesser extent Army of Shadows (1969). These films all explore different things within a particular topic. In the case of The Night Porter we see the depths of fantasy reached by traumatized survivors. Army of Shadows takes note of the humanity and mundane qualities of the resistance. The Damned focuses on the decadence and displays of power involving families caught up in the midst of war. Vice and Virtue is perhaps most similar to The Damned, with its decadent visuals and highly theatrical moments. The fates of Juliette and Schörndorf are nothing less than Shakespearean, especially with lines of dialog like, “We’ve only ever had one master: death,” and “I obey only one law: my own.” Indeed, it is quite well known that the Marquis de Sade was something of a drama queen, which is held up by his involvement with theater productions while an inmate in the Cherenton mental asylum.
Vadim’s film leaves a different kind of legacy as well–that of Catherine Deneuve and the many troubled women she portrays afterwards. With Vice and Virtue her first strong, supporting role, she went on to play Carol, the introverted and murderous protagonist in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), and perhaps more importantly, the timeless and amazing Séverine of Buñuel’s surreally erotic Belle de Jour (1967). Both of these roles–along with another appearance in Buñuel’s Tristana (1970)–can be marked as defining cinematic performances about trauma and fantasy. Her turn as Justine in Vice and Virtue could be considered the Sadeian seed which bloomed into something much more powerful in the following roles.