by Matt Levine
The Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès are often credited with laying the foundation for two divergent paths in film history: a documentary-like inclination towards realism in the former, and an emphasis on fantasy and spectacle in the latter. It is indeed hard to overstate the importance of both traditions in the ensuing century-plus of movies, but there’s a third and perhaps equally significant (or, at least, equally thrilling) influence that emerged from early French cinema. The crime serials that started populating storefront cinemas in France in the 1910s—by which point the powerhouse production companies (like Gaumont and Éclair) had already been established and urban audiences had begun flocking to movies as the modern era’s pop-culture medium of choice—walked a fine line between mainstream entertainment and subversive surrealism. French surrealists like Louis Aragon and Andre Breton praised such serials for inscribing the headlong velocity of the twentieth century onscreen.
Director: Georges Franju
Producer: Robert de Nesle
Writers: Jacques Champreux, Francis Lacassin
Cinematographer: Marcel Fradetal
Editor: Gilbert Natot
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Channing Pollock, Francine Bergé, Edith Scob, Théo Sarapo, Sylva Koscina, René Génin, Roger Fradet
Premiere: December 4, 1963 – France
US Theatrical Release: April 25, 1966
US Distributor: Continental Distributing (original release), Criterion Collection
Some of the most popular (and most fondly remembered) of these crime serials were helmed by Louis Feuillade, whose hundreds of films made from the early 1900s to the 1920s included Fantômas (1913), Les Vampires (1915), and Judex (1916). Wildly unpredictable pop fantasias involving hooded supervillains, anarchist terrorists, grandiose dastardly schemes, and bland bourgeois “heroes,” these serials may have been the belle époque versions of assembly-line commercialism, but they were also nightmarish visions of an uncanny modern world—especially once France’s major cities became hobbled by World War I. Maybe it’s obvious that I view Feuillade and this general subset of filmmaking with astounded admiration--Les Vampires in particular serves as something of a foundational cinematic text for me.
When the well-established filmmaker Georges Franju decided to remake one of Feuillade’s serials in the early 1960s, it seemed a peculiar decision. Franju had established the Cinématheque Française with Henri Langlois in 1936, then began a directorial career with a series of shocking documentaries commissioned by the French government in the 1940s. He was at the height of his fame in 1960, when his Grand Guignol masterpiece Eyes without a Face was released. His follow-up film would become Judex (though he originally wanted to remake Fantômas, the rights of which were already snatched up by another production company). In the early 1960s, meta-cinematic homages to earlier masterpieces were almost unheard of, considering the difficulty of rewatching older films (which, though occasionally aired on television, were most often screened in specialty cinematheques). What’s more, the crime serials made by Feuillade in the teens were still seen as lowbrow pop entertainment by some (though that’s exactly why they appealed to the surrealists). Put simply, Franju’s decision to remake a Feuillade serial flew in the face of established cinematic tradition.
Franju’s Judex remake—which has been unavailable on home video in the States until the Criterion Collection put out a sparkling Blu-ray a few months ago—is a dizzying, ravishing concoction, a hypnotic blend of styles that pays tribute to the legacy of silent cinema without simply mimicking it. The storyline remains generally the same as in Feuillade: self-appointed crusader Judex (Channing Pollock, an American magician with a wooden acting style) threatens to kill the slimy banker Favraux (Michel Vitold) for his rapacious misdeeds, while a pair of alluring petty crooks plots to ally with Favraux in exchange for a chunk of his fortune. Even a few specific plot twists are lifted from Feuillade’s 1916 original, such as the sudden, coincidental reunion between an estranged father and son that’s almost Dickensian.
In other ways, though, Franju’s remake is boldly idiosyncratic, a heady mixture of 1960s modernism, lurid melodrama, and bizarre science-fiction (the latter of which is conveyed through gorgeous in-camera special effects). The most famous scene from the film—a masquerade ball in which everyone is dressed as birds, while the eagle-masked Judex saunters through the crowd with a dead pigeon in his hand—is a rapturous feat of pure filmmaking, as dreamlike as anything in Last Year at Marienbad (1961). The sudden introduction of a circus acrobat named Daisy (Sylva Koscina), a character absent from the original, sets up a jaw-dropping climactic fight on the rooftops of Loisy—a setpiece that smashingly combines the florid action of Feuillade’s serials with the graceful dream imagery that Franju and his cinematographer, Marcel Fradetal, seem to achieve so easily.
One of the most subversive elements of Feuillade’s original serials was that the anarchic villains, from the bandit-terrorist Fantômas to the eponymous group of archcriminals in Les Vampires, were so much more interesting and compelling than the “heroes,” who were often mundane policemen or journalists dutifully following the law. In fact, Feuillade made Judex partially as a mea culpa: it was supposed to follow an upstanding hero who would teach a duplicitous criminal the error of his ways. It’s a sign of Feuillade’s troublemaker proclivities, though, that the character of Judex was much more boring than the petty crooks Diana and Morales, with whose nihilistic verve and abrasive sex appeal the audience naturally engaged. The same is true of Franju’s remake, which is a double-edged sword: it would be nice if the character of Judex had any personality at all (he’s just a cardboard superhero), but the greater appeal of the movie’s villains reiterates one of the subversive gambits that the surrealists loved so much in Feuillade’s original.
Judex functions primarily as a formalist masterstroke, which Franju has repeatedly admitted: it’s an ode to the collisions and illusions that cinema can create, even though much of the extraordinary action is viewed from a chilly remove (as in Feuillade’s original). Franju cuts in on the action much more frequently than Feuillade (which is only natural, given advances in film form over the intervening 45 years), often fragmenting human bodies into discrete parts—a dismembered hand here, widened eyes there, the stocking-clad legs of Diana and Daisy in the final encounter—to emphasize the nightmarish capability of the film camera. The sound might be even more ingenious: many action scenes are accompanied by subtle ambient noise, and dialogue is often overheard from some unseen offscreen space—like a silent movie narrated by some diegetic benshi. Franju’s Judex remake may be the most creative sync-sound homage to silent movies; unlike The Artist, for example, it’s not content to merely wax nostalgic over the style of silent cinema.
The snow-globe sheen of Judex is beautifully crystallized by the new Criterion Blu-ray, which is never less than astonishing to look at: blacks are incredibly deep and the sunlight in outdoor scenes literally seems to radiate from the screen. The sound is equally impressive, not only in conveying Franju’s complex soundtrack but also belting out Maurice Jarre’s magnificent, eclectic score. The real treasures on the Criterion disc, though, might be a handful of extras that help to emphasize Franju’s varied directorial career and the deceptive complexity of Judex. The Geoffrey O’Brien essay reprinted in the booklet makes clear how deft a balancing act Franju’s remake really is, although interviews with Franju himself are even more fascinating—especially when he sums up Judex by calling it “an illusion disrupted by skulking realism.” The Blu-ray set also includes two of Franju’s earlier short documentaries, Hôtel des Invalides (1951) and Le grand Méliès (1952)—bold and aggressive films which emphasize the fantastic undercurrents of realism, a duality which both the Judex remake and Feuillade in general also hold in balance.
Franju’s Judex might sound like little more than a ravishing lark, but you might be surprised to find yourself thinking about it for days afterwards, somewhat mystified the chilly tone of these fantastic caped-crusader adventures. The end of the film itself firmly plants its feet and does a complete one-eighty, as a closing title card harkens back to “an unhappy time—1914” (around the height of Feuillade’s career). Franju seems to chide us into contextualizing Feuillade’s fantasias against the backdrop of World War I, recalling how the burgeoning art form of cinema provided a respite from the ravages of war. One of the more compelling remakes in the history of movies, Judex at first seems like a tip of the hat to a wildly entertaining legacy, when in fact it tries to do no less than encapsulate an entire era.