How does it happen that a person who first read the Alexandria Quartet in the Sixties, and many more times since then, never saw the film Justine until now? Good question. Some people like the movie, others don’t. One critic calls it a “muddled mess.” I wouldn’t go that far, but for someone viewing it simply as a film, without the background of the books, it probably would be confusing. The Quartet itself is a Rashomon-like work, inspecting the same events from many different angles, and no movie could encompass everything that was in the novels. Still, it’s an intriguing story set in a beautiful place and peopled with extraordinary characters.
The film, directed by George Cukor, starts with a voiceover, and right away I’m thinking uh-oh, because I was taught that a voiceover is a sign of weakness, and indicates a failure of imagination on the part of the screenwriter and/or director. Fortunately, narration is used very sparingly, delivered by the character Darley (Michael York, who is a stone fox).
Melissa (Anna Karina) is part-time hooker, part-time belly dancer in one of the sleazy clubs that make up the notoriously decadent Alexandria nightlife. She wants to cut loose from the old furrier Cohen, whose mistress she used to be. A sailor puts Spanish fly in Melissa’s drink and she staggers through the streets and collapses, tormented by urchins, in front of where Darley lives, which apparently is upstairs from yet another club. He takes her in and sends for the doctor, who knows Melissa already and recites the list of her physical problems from malnutrition to alcohol to hashish, etc. Melissa is carried to the hospital, but she promises to come back and see Darley when she’s well – which she does, looking so respectable, normal and beautiful he doesn’t even recognize her at first. They start an affair and Melissa falls in love, but when Darley meets a dark, mysterious stranger, his every thought turns to the alluring Justine (Anouk Aimée).
Pursewarden is a poet and minor government flunkey. His cultural sophistication is demonstrated by, for instance, the cool Cubist art in his place. He takes Darley to the worst part of Alexandria, to a house of child prostitutes where the walls are adorned with the children’s blue handprints, to chase away evil spirits. This is very odd, but I know a Methodist church were there are handprints on the walls, blue and other colors. Many of the fine arts practiced by the Sunday School kids involve handprint-based formats. Every time I see those handprints, I think of the Alexandria Quartet.
It’s pretty creepy, how those little prepubescent hookers climb all over the two men, trying to turn them into customers. Well, if they aren’t customers, what are they doing here, anyway? Looking for Justine, who hangs out in this neighborhood a lot, searching for her lost daughter, a child whose very existence is doubted by Pursewarden. He thinks Justine is a drama queen, trying to create an intriguingly tragic aura about herself. Justine doesn’t just look for her daughter, she attacks johns in the very midst of their carnal transactions, and then gathers all the little child prostitutes around her and tells them a story. Law enforcement arrives, and Darley gets roughed up for his part in disrupting the brothel’s routine.
Old Cohen the furrier is in the hospital, and Darley runs into Justine there. In a touching gesture he returns to the old man the bottle of Melissa’s perfume he had confiscated (along with a gun) in an earlier scene. Despite Melissa’s warning that Justine is dangerous, Darley goes to the country estate to meet her husband, the wealthy Nessim Hosnani. He’s the kind of guy who, you ask him for advice, he says, “When in doubt, buy diamonds.” Justine goes around in the most opulent fur coat you’ve ever seen. Isn’t Eqypt supposed to be hot? In that time and place, were women such slaves to fashion and one-upwomanship that they wore furs to show off, despite what must have been massive discomfort? Maybe Egypt has a cold season. But nobody else seems bundled up. Still, one can’t doubt the fur, because novelist Lawrence Durrell really did live in and closely observe Alexandria.
In the novels, Nessim’s brother Narouz is disfigured by a facial birth defect, and lacks social skills, living by choice more like a serf than a rich man. In the movie, Narouz does not have a harelip and is indeed very handsome, but still savage. The religio-political reality is explained to Darley. The Coptic Christians, including the Hosnanis, are a greatly outnumbered minority whose situation grows ever more perilous, and it’s all the fault of the Brits. Darley doesn’t have time to reflect on any of this information, because Justine comes on to him in a big way. She romps naked in the waves, and soon there is romance on the beach. But Justine suddenly balks, and pushes Darley away. He is very confused until, back at the house, he finds a telescope aimed at the blanket they’d been reclining on, watched by Nessim. Then he’s even more confused, because Nessim, as always, is the perfect blandly courteous host.
Before too long, Darley and Justine do get around to making love, but the minute it’s over Justine insists on listening to Nessim make a speech on the radio, and Darley gets dressed because that kind of thing creeps him out.
Darley is with Nessim and Justine in the club where Melissa dances. Her boss makes her go out among the patrons, collecting tips. Darley gets out some bills – a whole week’s pay, as we later learn – but Justine takes his money and tucks it in Melissa’s glittery panties herself. What a bitch.
All Alexandria is at a glittering masquerade ball. Many people wear a domino, a massive hooded cloak of black, red, or white, with matching face mask. Justine gives one of the minor characters, an assertive homosexual, her very recognizable ring to wear. This fellow makes a gross pass at Narouz, who thinks it’s his own sister-in-law Justine, because of the ring. Narouz violently attacks the molester.
Pursewarden is at the ball, with his blind sister Liza. All the décor and costumes are in shades of black, white, and red, while Liza wears innocent spring green. Mountolive, the British ambassador, announces that Liza is going to marry him, which upsets Pursewarden. Then he is even more upset by Justine coming on to him. Disgusted by her whorish ways, he lashes out at her. Darley witnesses this argument, which only adds his desolation over Justine’s coldness to him.
The costumed reveler wearing Justine’s ring is soon found dead, stabbed through the brain. At first, Justine’s husband thinks it’s her, but only for a few minutes. Narouz has run away, thinking he killed Justine. He’s in a church, beseeching at the altar. Nessim asks himself what kind of a man he is, to use his wife like a whore so she can spy for him. But then again, she did volunteer.
Now there’s a little more voice-over, with Darley reflecting on how naïve he was, not to have known the Hosnanis were only using him to find out how much old Cohen had told Melissa about the armaments smuggling. Meanwhile, Justine brings a common whore over to Pursewarden’s. First he tries to kick her out. Then he decides to call Justine’s bluff, and starts making use of the prostitute, so Justine kicks her out. Then Pursewarden and Justine are very cozy and she says, “Oh, I love you, you wretched man.”
Thus subverted by Justine, Pursewarden defends the Hosnanis to the British authorities, telling his superiors that these people would never do such a thing as smuggle guns. Then he goes to the Hosnanis and tells them everything the British government knows about their clandestine financial and political activities. He ridicules Darley for continuing to moon around after Justine. But Darley is genuinely concerned about her, afraid that Nessim will kill her for her multiple infidelities. Then, he sees Justine and Nessim kiss passionately.
Confused, he tries to get Melissa back. He gives her that hot look that Omar Sharif gives Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. But Melissa is partying with her tranny friends, and besides, she’s going away to some kind of spa to try and get over tuberculosis.
Meanwhile, Narouz is a loose cannon, venting his anxiety in hostile political rants that put the whole Coptic community in danger. Nessim tells him he’ll be sent out of the country for a while to take care of business, but Narouz gets all confrontational and calls Nessim’s wife a whore. Justine advises having him assassinated, and Nessim slaps her face.
Justine goes to the school where Darley teaches, and finds the manuscript he’s working on, which is about her. It’s a pretty strong indictment, and but still he regrets that he was not able to touch her soul. Aha, now Justine knows what he really wants, so she tells him another version of her story, something appropriately soulful that’s even worse than he thought. Yes, he’s right in suspecting that there was no accidentally lost child. There was a daughter she had at age 17 and knowingly gave away, and she’s tortured by guilt.
With the political climate heating up, the Hosnanis need protection like never before. The Muslim ruler is Memlik Pasha, whose legendary corruption is carried out in a charmingly original way. When you want to bribe such a dignitary, you don’t just wave money in his face, oh no. What you do is, locate a fine old collectible copy of the Koran, and stuff a whole lot of currency between the pages. In the privacy of his office, the Pasha counts up the money and, if it’s enough, he comes out and thanks you very much for the lovely book, which will add to the luster of his collection. Only in this case, the Koran full of cash isn’t enough. Memlik Pasha tells Nessim to send his wife over to get acquainted.
Despite Nessim’s reluctance to admit that his brother is a dangerous liability, Narouz soon ends up shot, supposedly by accident. Dying, he spits blood in Nessim’s face. In a great scene, the professional mourners set up a big lament and destroy all the deceased’s possessions, according to local custom.
Meanwhile, what’s going on with ambassador Mountolive and Liza? Well, Mountolive reproaches Pursewarden for being unkind to his sister. And then word comes that Liza has called off the engagement, and Mountolive asks Pursewarden if he knows the reason. He does, as we soon find out when Pursewarden hires Melissa in her professional capacity, but is unable to do anything. He confesses to her that he and his blind sister Liza are incestuously involved. “We can’t love anybody else,” he says. They have tried to rid themselves of each other, but can’t. Unfazed, Melissa tells him that in her life as a prostitute, she’s seen plenty of people even more twisted, so he shouldn’t feel so bad. She also tells Pursewarden that Cohen was sending guns to Palestine to kill the English. Pursewarden calls Justine to tell her he’s ratted out the Hosnanis, and she and Nessim have about an hour to get away, then he bites a cyanide capsule and dies.
But Nessim and Justine don’t flee. They stay, under house arrest and also under the protection of Memlik Pasha, who lets Nessim leave for a while every day so he can come over and have his way with Justine. Darley finds out all this on a last visit to the Hosnanis, in which Nessim also admits to him that he has been sending guns to Palestine, in return for the promise of sanctuary when things get really bad for the Copts in Egypt. Poor Darley is still nuts about Justine and asks pathetically, “Didn’t you care for me at all?”
Which reminds me of the only question I still have about the plot. Since Justine willingly used her body in the service of the political cause, seducing whoever her husband decided would be useful for information, protection, or whatever, why did she freak out and call off the tryst when she realized (from the reflection on the glass) that Nessim was watching them through the telescope? In fact, why did she pick that spot, knowing it was visible from the house? That’s what I’d like to know.
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