Vice & Virtue (Kino Classics, PG-13)

vice virtue_75Vice & Virtue is a fairly conventional melodrama contrasting two sisters, one good and one bad.

 

vice virtue_500

I doubt that anyone has ever accused Roger Vadim of being overly subtle. His best films have a sort of divine madness about them (Barbarella comes immediately to mind), while his failures sometimes manage to be memorable despite their clunkiness. Vice & Virtue (1963) is one of his failures, but it’s still an interesting film to watch, not only for the light it sheds on the director’s obsessions, but also for his bizarre attempts to take belated revenge on the Third Reich from the safety of the director’s chair.

Vice & Virtue is purportedly based on the novel Justine, by the Marquis de Sade, but if you didn’t know that going in you could easily miss the connection. The story has been updated to World War II and is set in occupied France, with the evil of the Nazis highlighted by their devotion to kink. It seems they keep a rural castle stocked with young beauties to fulfill their every desire…

If only we got more of the kink and less of the moralizing. Vice & Virtue is a fairly conventional melodrama contrasting two sisters, one good (Justine, played by Catherine Deneuve) and one bad (Juliette, played by Annie Girardot). There’s nothing subtle going on here: Virtue is married to a resistance fighter (Jean-Pierre Honoré), while Vice is consorting with a Nazi general (O. E. Hasse). The sisters are also conveniently differentiated by hair color and dress (good = blonde and a white wedding dress; bad = dark hair and a black bathing suit). Vice has already bartered away her virtue for favors and material goods, while Virtue is forced to do so in order to save her husband’s life. Girardot steals the show, while Deneuve is given comparatively little to do, but you know what they say about bad girls having all the fun.

For all of its absurdities, there’s something endearing about Vice & Virtue. Perhaps it’s the director’s shamelessness in padding out his film with newsreel footage marking the progress of the war (although if you’re not already up on this sort of thing, it doesn’t really serve as a useful timeline). Perhaps it’s the overbearing score, which breaks into Wagnerian pomposity at regular intervals. Perhaps it’s the very audacity of the premise and the exuberance of its execution—especially in the kinky castle, where attractive young ladies are decked out in pseudo-Grecian robes and elaborate hairstyles, the better to excite the attentions of their cruel overlords.

Although this is essentially a silly film, it is fun to watch and particularly worthwhile for the set design by Jean André and black and white cinematography by Marcel Grignon. The visuals, based on a 2K restoration by Gaumont, are sharp and clear, with excellent depth of field and detailing. The audio quality is also good, although the soundtrack itself is a bit hokey. | Sarah Boslaugh

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