|cast: Channing Pollock, Edith Scob, Francine Berge, and Michel Vitold
director: Georges Franju
104 minutes (PG) 1963
| One of the rarely spoken of giants of early genre cinema is Louis Feuillade. Operating in the first quarter of the 20th century, Feuillade produced over 700 silent films including Fantomas (1913), and The Vampires (1915). Many of these films featured battles between colourful criminals and vigilantes and, in many ways, resemble the pulps that would prove so influential in the English-speaking world. Georges Franju’s Judex is a partial remake of Feuillade’s 1916 silent film of the same name.
The film revolves around a crooked banker who, having ruined friends and enemies alike, one day receives a threatening letter signed by Judex warning him to give away his fortune or face terrible consequences. Needless to say, the warnings are not heeded and Judex kidnaps the banker by faking his death. Ensuing revelations about how the banker made his money result in his daughter foregoing her inheritance. Unfortunately, the governess of the banker’s granddaughter also learns of this and begins trying to take control of the blackmail documents that form the basis for the banker’s fortune. This unleashes a cat-and-mouse chase as Judex and the governess try to trap each other until, eventually, the femme fatale falls off a roof after losing a fight with an acrobat as Judex’s men storm the building.
Franju made his name as a director with the 1959 French horror film Les Yeux Sans Visage (aka: Eyes Without A Face), a film that earned him a reputation for being a director who could bring the fantastical and the eerie out of the most mundane settings. Judex is a film that continues very much within this tradition and the eeriness is portrayed in a number of powerfully expressionistic scenes that are, nonetheless, anchored in a strange form of realism.
The first of these two scenes is Judex’s entrance into the house of the banker. In eveningwear and a giant bird’s head, the scene opens with the camera panning slowly up his body to reveal the sinister head staring right into the camera. Judex then wanders through a masked ball with a dead dove in one hand. He climbs the stage and begins a magic act carried out in complete silence and which begins with the reanimation of the dove. Creepy, surreal, disturbing and utterly fantastical, this scene matches the otherworldliness of Jean Cocteau’s 1947 adaptation of Beauty And The Beast, as well as the surreal decadence of Renoir’s 1939 satire of upper class France, The Rules Of The Game. The second scene is shot on a roof in the dark, and scored with some beautiful and yet disturbing electronic music, as the femme fatale battles it out with an acrobat who, in true deus ex machina fashion, happened to be passing and decided to risk her life for the good guys. Again, conducted in silence, this scene is evocative of Fellini’s taste for surrealism and fondness for circus folk. While these two scenes are beautifully shot and richly evocative, the other 80 minutes or so of the film are somewhat puzzling.
Despite being an adventure film, Judex is seriously lacking in pace or even excitement. Franju bloats the running time by showing the characters doing mundane things such as putting on hats and getting in and out of cars. This, along with the fact that the action scenes are clearly not in the least bit choreographed, gives the film a kind of amateurish feel that does not exactly capture the attention. The writing is also largely sub-par with the film lacking any real point or thrust; the characters are paper-thin and things just happen for little or no reason. Indeed, if this film had been made today, it would be tempting to see it as a kind of satire of the all-conquering superhero genre as none of the action/ thriller genre conventions are obeyed or even acknowledged.
Judex is dominated by an on-going battle between the film’s more fantastical elements and the relative mundanity of its setting and characters. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) draws attention to the fact that Batman (and the Joker who comes in his wake) is actually an utterly bizarre thing to have running around your city. The surreal nature of Batman is clearly what is behind the decision to make Gotham city seem a far more mundane place than it was in Batman Begins (2005). Judex mines a similar vein of surrealism by having Judex drive around in perfectly normal cars. Indeed, when he wanders around in his cape and hat people barely acknowledge the fact that he looks weird. Nor does anyone question how Judex found out about these injustices, let alone ask what business they are of his. If Judex existed in a world full of ninjas and castles, we would not question his presence but the fact that he exists unquestioned in a largely mundane world sets up a tension between realism and fantasy that actually makes the film and everything in it seem quite eerie. This eeriness is also increased by the film’s frequently strange soundtrack, which includes incredibly loud birdsong whenever the characters are outside, including at night.
The film’s performances are largely perfunctory given that the script expresses little interest in any of the characters. Channing Pollock has good screen presence but he is clearly no actor (in fact, he was a popular stage magician in his day). However, Francine Berge and Edith Scob are clearly excellent actresses but they really have nothing to sink their teeth into, leaving Scob to faint and sigh while Berge vamps the camera and pads around in a black leotard or non-costume brandishing a dagger (indeed, Berge’s costumes add significantly to the film’s weirdness quotient).
Ultimately, aside from a few admittedly beautiful scenes, Judex has little to offer. If judged as the action/ adventure film it was supposed to be it is a clear failure as the mundanity of the world, and the lack of any real pace or drama, make it a rather monotonous watch. As a work of film-as-art it is pretty enough and the scenes that clearly inspired Franju are undeniably well shot, but there simply is not enough here to support a film that is dangerously close to two hours long.
The DVD comes with an interesting interview with co-writer Jacques Champreux and is sold in a set with Nuits rouges (aka: Shadowman), Franju’s other exploration of Feuillade.