The Secret Heart of Judex

On Film / Essays — Jun 16, 2014

The history of cinema is full of remakes, but there is no tribute quite like Georges Franju’s Judex, a loving compression and reimagining of the 1916 serial by Louis Feuillade. It helps to remember that, in 1963, Feuillade’s five-and-a-half-hour grand ciné-­roman—recounting in twelve episodes a convoluted tale of hidden crime, secret vengeance, and final redemption—was scarcely visible beyond the precincts of the Cinémathèque française, and then only on rare occasions. It belonged to an occult film history still only emerging into common view. Franju was in the position of someone trying to ­convey the splendors of an inaccessible original by distilling them through his own poetic imagination into a wholly independent work, an act whose profound fidelity can be measured precisely by the ways in which he changed his source. He is never more faithful than when he is doing it differently, as if chipping away irrelevancies to get at the essence of Feuillade’s vision.

Franju recalled discovering Feuillade’s films in 1938, when he and Henri Langlois (with whom he had recently joined to found the Cinémathèque française) included some of them in a retrospective program at the Venice Film Festival. He described himself as being drawn to Feuillade’s “style that does not seem like a style . . . his way of telling simple or crazy stories that are made still more extraordinary by the familiar natural settings whose reality—the truth—always makes them beautiful.” It was the Cinémathèque’s promotion of Feuillade that caught the attention of the young generation of future New Wave filmmakers, making Feuillade’s epic fantasias of crime and conspiracy—also including Fantômas (1913–14), Les vampires (1915–16), Tih Minh (1918), and Barrabas (1919)—once again, as they had been for the surrealists, symbols of an art capable of fusing the bizarre with the everyday. Alain Resnais, for instance, would praise “that prodigious poetic instinct that allowed him to make surrealism as easily as he breathed.”

What excited the surrealists—leading André Breton and Louis Aragon, in a jointly signed passage, to refer to Fantômas and Les vampires as “the great reality of this century, beyond fashion, beyond taste”—was Feuillade’s capacity to introduce the most fantastic and subversive episodes into the most ordinary settings and situations, observed with the contemplative precision of one of Eugène Atget’s photographs. His conspiring criminals, masters of disguise who perversely manipulate social conventions toward their own nihilistic ends, are like underground artists staging bizarre spectacles in the midst of drawing rooms, hotel lobbies, railroad stations, and opera houses. At his most inspired, Feuillade can create the effect of simultaneously watching a documentary and a dream come to life.

That paradox was bound to appeal to Franju, a filmmaker with an equal bent toward both the documentary and the dreamlike. Born in 1912, he worked early on as a theatrical set designer before plunging enthusiastically into the world of film, as critic, pioneering archivist, and eventually a maker of documentary shorts. He achieved a scandalous celebrity with Blood of the Beasts (1949), his ineradicably horrific and undeniably beautiful study of an abattoir on the outskirts of Paris, which he followed with Hôtel des Invalides (1951), a similarly elegant and uncompromising film essay on the traumas of war, and Le grand Méliès (1952), a melancholy portrait of another early filmmaker whose work he revered. He did not make a feature film until Head Against the Wall, in 1958, thus finding himself grouped with the fledgling New Wave filmmakers.

Franju, although greatly admired by many of those directors, never quite fit in with any group. Self-defined as an anticlerical anarchist (“An anarchist with a tender heart,” according to Judex’s coscenarist Francis Lacassin), he displayed throughout his career an unmistakable intransigence in his commitment to a private vision that could take many outward forms: the nearly expressionist exposé of the mistreatment of the insane in Head Against the Wall, the fusion of formal beauty and surgical horror in Eyes Without a Face (1960), the seeming reversion to the French “tradition of quality” in the underrated François Mauriac adaptation Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962). One thing these otherwise very different films have in common is a sense of being steeped in the obsessive power of black-and-white images, images that Franju dwells on patiently until they yield irrational lyrical revelation. Franju may have been the last director whose work was truly rooted in the aesthetics of silent movies.

***

Judex was yet another highly personal, entirely unpredictable move. This was before—just before—the era when adaptations of old icons of pop culture became familiar items. It was certainly not the sort of thing that a serious filmmaker was expected to do. In fact, when it came to Feuillade, Judex was not Franju’s first choice. He would have much preferred to do a new version of Fantômas, whose anarchic master of crime was closer to Franju’s heart. One can only imagine how much darker and fiercer that might have been. As it turned out, the Fantômas rights had already been optioned, for what turned out to be a series of broadly comic adventure movies more in the vein of James Bond than Feuillade’s antihero.

Judex was another matter, something of an atonement on Feuillade’s part for the unredeemed criminality he had evoked with such gusto in Fantômas. Feuillade was, after all, no radical, however much radical artists adored his work, but rather a good Catholic and fervent monarchist, and moreover a commercially minded filmmaker keenly attuned to market trends. His new cloaked-avenger hero (remotely akin to Zorro or Batman) was a straight-arrow righter of wrongs—specifically, the wrongs of the corrupt banker Henri Favraux, a defrauder of the innocent who thinks nothing of driving honest men to suicide—without much humor or indeed any character at all once you got past the impressive black hat and cape, and the mysterious trappings of his secret hideout in a ruined château.

The film he starred in likewise lacked the relentless nightmarish atmosphere of Fantômas and its even more demented successor Les vampires. Where those earlier serials were notable for their improvisational weirdness and unsettling hints of orgiastic amorality, Judex had more the feel of a popular nineteenth-century novel in which innocence and evil are unambiguously pitted against each other. That said, Feuillade’s Judex is nonetheless a masterwork, a full-bodied melodrama with its share of unforgettable gags and inventions (many to be adopted wholesale by Franju) and the constant overpowering presence of the French countryside that Feuillade made an essential part of the drama.

Judex, in the original serial, had a carefully planted backstory explaining why he went to such extremes to wreak vengeance on the rapacious Favraux, but Franju decided to strip him of any such logical motivation and make him more a figure from a dream. That he certainly becomes in the scene that most viewers remember most vividly: his sudden entry, wearing a gigantic bird headdress and resembling a Max Ernst painting come to life, walking silently, with a seemingly dead pigeon in his outstretched hand, through a ballroom full of masqueraders, many of whom also sport bird heads. Franju cast an American magican, Channing Pollock, in the role, and although his acting range was not great, his mastery of sleight of hand is put to impressive use in this episode and later. Pollock’s inexpressiveness is actually appropriate, since Franju has no interest in giving the character any psy­chological motivation, and has no admiration for the kind of pulp hero he embodies.

Curiously, there would be within a few years an explosion of camped-up or psychedelicized comic book heroes on screens large and small, by way of, among others, Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise (1966), Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik (1968), and the Batman TV series starring Adam West (1966–68). These in turn opened the way for what has become the worldwide reign of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and their many colleagues, by now promoted from pop art icons to grand tragic figures. For Franju, as it happens, the poetry of Judex resided almost everywhere but in the hero himself; as Judex progressively reveals his actual identity, he begins to seem more pretext than center. He is stunning as a bird-man and engaging in his regulation cape and hat, yet when Favraux’s daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) catches him in the act of changing out of the secret identity he has assumed for much of the movie, it’s almost as if he starts to evaporate into the wider and wilder poetic atmosphere that surrounds him.

***

The plot of Judex was for Franju the least important component—he was much more interested in the dark and cluttered furniture, the ceremonially elaborate costumes, the solemnly observed social rituals, the harsh tonal contrasts of the orthochromatic cinematography—­yet he did a brilliant job of reducing Feuillade’s convoluted narrative to starker proportions, in collaboration with his screenwriters, Lacassin (a film scholar specializing in Feuillade) and Jacques Champreux (Feuillade’s grandson). He kept the indelible images and incidents: the banker apparently falling dead in the midst of his own banquet, and then waking to find himself in a subterranean dungeon; the archaic television (given a further art deco flourish by Franju) that tracks his every movement; the letters on the ceiling that spell out the terms of Judex’s judgment on his prisoner; the pigeons by which Judex learns that Jacqueline is in danger. What he discarded, often, were the more pedestrian bits of linking matter designed to provide a superficial sense of logical connection.

Where Feuillade moves at a relaxed trot, casting an eye over the passing landscape and savoring comic and sentimental interludes along the way, Franju extracts the imagistic essence of every plot turn, so that his movie seems all high points, every shot climactic, with no downtime whatsoever. The sense of time is precisely what gets suspended in Franju’s Judex. It has always seemed to me a movie out of time, a movie made despite time. It is neither of 1916 nor 1963, and while we are watching it, we seem to be living in an alternate dream time not measurable by the clock. Incident moves rapidly on incident, yet the whole film feels caught in a peculiar immobility, as if we were allowed to indulge the fantasy of moving at will between past and present or freezing a cherished moment forever. People speak words, but it all feels like a silent movie; they undergo fearful and inexplicable adventures, yet we eavesdrop on these happenings in a state of calm and pleasurable inviolability.

The mood intended by Franju seems to have baffled the author of the (unsigned) New York Times review when the film opened in New York in the spring of 1966: “It becomes so solemn and so firmly naturalistic in its style that one gets the confusing impression that Mr. Franju thinks he is Mr. Feuillade—that he has done a sort of backward transmigration of his creative soul and is making an entertainment to gull an openmouthed audience.” The same reviewer evidently regretted that Judex was not “a deliberate and nifty-spiffy spoof”—a movie, presumably, like Philippe de Broca’s lighthearted pulp adventure That Man from Rio (1964), which had recently enjoyed a successful U.S. run, a pure example of the kind of film that Franju had no intention of making. Judex is neither a painless wallowing in nostalgia nor a disenchanted dismantling of antiquated images, and least of all is it the sort of rollicking campy burlesque that audiences might have expected.

Franju had no wish to condescend to the material he was working with; he took it with total seriousness, even as he perceived its absurdities and troubling subtexts with a clarity and appreciation unencumbered by anything too ponderously reverential. He was perfectly happy to jettison the dross of outmoded sentiments and moral justifications in order to preserve, as in a fantastically concentrated tincture, what remained of ultimate value in Feuillade: “The dreamlike quality of the spectacle, the poetic logic of the spectacle.” As I recall, Judex ran very briefly indeed in New York. I saw it repeatedly, savoring the opportunity to be steeped in images that—given the vagaries of film programming in the pre-video era—might never return. It was like leafing through an album of extraordinary pictures knowing that afterward it was going to be snatched away.

That images so hauntingly beautiful should carry such an edge of anxiety comes close to the secret heart of Judex. It is a cinematic paradise, evoking a world that at that very moment was being irrevocably swept away. For Franju, it was linked, as he acknowledged, to his memories of childhood. He was four years old when Feuillade’s film came out (although there is no evidence of his having seen it), right in the middle of the Great War, of which he was at that age blissfully unaware. Judex’s melodramatic crises are framed—casually by Feuillade, and with fervent and fetishistic devotion by Franju—by the design and texture of clothes, furnishings, hallways, gardens, the accoutrements of a world apparently stable. But this was a paradise already lost in the moment of its inception, and it is not so much a question of bringing it back to life as of creating it again, through the alternate reality of cinema.

An alternate reality, not a land of magical make-believe: Franju considered himself a realist no matter what material he was working with, and his style here is not in the least fanciful or phantasmagoric. It can be taken as dry and skeptical, to the point of deflating Feuillade’s melodramatics and reducing his masked hero, in the end, to a slightly absurd mannequin. On another level, however, we feel the yearning of a child to make real a cherished fantasy, to use fantasy as a conduit for the fulfillment of inarticulate desires. It is a bit like existing simultaneously at two points in time, watching the same scenes with two very different minds: the almost religious absorption of the child who can believe everything and the detached contemplation of the adult who understands how the pieces of the story were fabricated and with what motives they were put together.

***

Franju, though, is constructing a world to his own specifications, a sort of multidimensional toy. From first to last, it seems like a film designed for pure aesthetic enjoyment. Aside from the main intrigue—the secret war pitting Judex against Favraux and the sinister and seductive Diana Monti (Francine Bergé, in a role played originally by the legendary Musidora) against Favraux’s daughter, in an endless round of abduction and counterabduction, flight and ambush—there is a full menu of diversions and decorations. Jacques Jouanneau, as the droll and sympathetic detective Cocantin, recites (for a little girl named Alice) Lewis Carroll’s “The Lobster-Quadrille”; Sylva Koscina, as the acrobat Daisy, rolls through town in her circus wagon just in time for a last-reel rescue. For the most part, we are not moved, though, to take more than a spectator’s interest in anyone’s plight. “There isn’t really any humanity in Judex,” Franju told Cahiers du cinéma, “and where there’s no humanity, there’s no drama.”

Or rather, the drama is in the relation of Franju to the patterns he is creating with his found materials, and, beyond that, in the relation of the spectator to a spectacle that seems always like the ghost of something already experienced. We’ve been here before—we’ve seen this idyllic park, this dark carriage, this belle epoque ballroom, this drawer full of secret documents, this mask, this dagger, this false telegram, this ruined château; we’ve already lived through, or dreamt through, these robberies and midnight exhumations. The only surprise here is the hard-edged poetry, immeasurably supported by Maurice Jarre’s score and Marcel Fradetal’s cinematography, with its sharp period feel, with which every detail is realized. No flamboyance, no exaggeration, no grandstanding comedy or frenetically parodistic chase scenes: each episode unfolds calmly, with no special emphasis. The slow, persistent, gliding camera movements create a mood of rapt attentiveness, while the momentary blackouts between scenes constantly interrupt any sense of linkage, making each fresh scene seem an intrusion out of darkness.

Moments of high action—the attack on the ambulance coming to rescue the heroine, the fatal fall from a balcony of the henchman attempting to steal crucial documents—are embellished sketches, rapid and almost indifferent. That seeming indifference imparts a curious realness to the proceedings, as if these things might possibly be happening, as if we could walk again in those imagined places the way Edith Scob, as Jacqueline, walks through the corridors of her vanished father’s mansion, glancing into one empty room after another. This scene, in which nothing happens, was for Franju a high point of the film, a vector of the poetic feeling incarnated for him by Scob—the unforgettable faceless Christiane from Eyes Without a Face—here making her fourth appearance in one of his films. When he spoke of Scob, it was always with a certain awe: “Edith doesn’t inspire me, she inhabits me.”

Her role here, as the daughter who gives away her inherited fortune when she learns of her father’s crimes and who becomes a persistent target for the relentless Diana, is seemingly no more than a conventional image of passive virtuousness. Jacqueline Favraux can certainly be called passive, in the sense that, half the time we see her, she is being carried, either by abductors or rescuers, if she is not lying unconscious on a pathway guarded by watchdogs. But, whether photographed staring through a window into the garden or walking dreamily with a flower in her hand or floating on the river in which Diana and her accomplices have tried to drown her, she is the focal point for Franju of everything that is mysterious, everything that lies beyond mere story logic. Such is the force of Scob’s glance that we come to feel that Jacqueline is the one bearing witness to everything that happens in the film, the only one who registers the real feeling embedded within the childlike play of melodrama.

***

Judex, the nominal defender of good against evil, may emerge victorious, but in terms of screen presence, he is no match for Francine Bergé’s Diana, slinking on midnight errands in black mask and catsuit, threatening Jacqueline with a stiletto, dancing apache-style in a low-down dive, or wielding a hypodermic while disguised as a nun—and not any nun, but one sporting an enormous white headdress that, as the critic Raymond Durgnat pointed out (in his provocative book-length study of Franju), seems distinctly birdlike. There were some protests in France at this deployment of religious costume as a disguise for evil, doubtless exacerbated by the unavoidably transgressive air of that moment when Diana strips off her nun’s robe to dive, catsuited, through a trapdoor into the waters below. The inner drama in Judex is really played out between the two women, with the hero a more or less helpful onlooker. The woman in white against the woman in black—but as to what that struggle might really portend, Franju leaves all possibilities open. When Diana at length falls with a thud to her final landing, on a bed of flowers, she receives the most sympathetic of send-offs, with a trumpeter playing a sad tune and a little boy looking down at her body as if in mourning.

The tale is done, the heroine is rescued, the lovers stroll along a misty beach: a happy ending out of an old movie. At this point, Franju superimposes a title—just as, at various junctures in the film, he has interpolated inter­titles in the manner of the original serial—and at just this last moment injects a startling emotional shock: “In homage to Louis Feuillade, in memory of a time that was not happy: 1914.” It is the year that is made to stand out in boldface, the fatal date that, merely by being evoked, places everything we have just experienced in a different light. A hidden grief is allowed to escape, and the fragility of the pleasures we have been savoring is made even more achingly apparent.