Justine follows its titular character (Tallulah Haddon) over a period of three months, as her relationship with Rachel (Sophie Reid) develops and weathers its ups and downs.
The film opens with a quote from Ovid’s Heroides filling the screen, epigraph style: “Chance is always powerful. Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be fish.” Justine and Rachel meet by chance, when Rachel sees Justine stealing the aforementioned text from a bookshop.
But before all of that, our first glimpse of Justine is in the bath. She is bloody, bruised, fully dressed. Her landlord is banging on the front door of her flat. She hasn’t paid her rent. The bathroom is grimy and badly lit.
We soon find out that Justine is an addict. The cashier at her local off-licence knows her by name, but she still slips 35cl bottles of vodka into her bag when he’s not looking. “What’s attractive about dying, Justine?” her therapist (Sian Reese-Williams) asks at one point. “Not feeling,” Justine replies, and the desire to open yourself up to a new relationship when you’re terrified of your own feelings is a constant battle that wages throughout the film.
Handheld camerawork gives Justine an intimate feel, as does the fact that we only see the protagonist communicate with others in one-to-one conversations. The film’s only sex scene is awkward and sweet and realistically depicts the difficulty of getting jeans off in a hurry.
The tender moments between Justine and Rachel are filmed in warm tones, a world away from the scenes where Justine is alone. Brighton-born director Jamie Patterson set and filmed Justine in his hometown, and the Brighton that Justine inhabits alone is so different from the city she experiences when she’s with Rachel.
The film’s strength undoubtedly lies in its portrayal of Justine and Rachel’s relationship. Her conflict with her family feels a little half-baked – although emotional, her eventual confrontation with her mother doesn’t quite have the payoff we’ve been waiting for. Her exchanges with her therapist often risk drifting into angsty stereotypes, although as the film progresses their conversations yield some more vulnerable moments.
Cyclical in form, the film’s structure echoes the patterns of addiction. It handles its subject matter delicately and sensitively, letting the viewer feel both Justine and Rachel’s pain as they try to navigate their relationship around Justine’s illness. Both actors do their job skilfully, negotiating the moments of silence between their characters with particular poignancy. Ultimately, Justine is as much about addiction as it is about what it means to love an addict.
Justine was due to screen at BFI Flare at the end of March, but was cancelled due to the Coroavirus outbreak. It was instead made available to watch from home.
by Emily Garbutt