Judex

Director: Georges Franju
Screenplay: Jacques Champreux and Francis Lacassin (based on the 1916 screenplay by Arthur Bernède and Louis Feuillade)
Stars: Channing Pollock (Judex / Vallières), Francine Bergé (Diana Monti / Marie Verdier), Edith Scob (Jacqueline Favraux), Jacques Jouanneau (Alfred Cocantin), Michel Vitold (Favraux), Théo Sarapo (Morales), Sylva Koscina (Daisy), René Génin (Pierre Kerjean), Roger Fradet (Leon), André Méliès (Doctor), Philippe Mareuil (Amaury de la Rochefontaine), Luigi Cortese (Pierrot), Benjamin Boda (Réglisse)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1963
Country: France / Italy
Judex: Criterion Collection Blu-ray
JudexPerhaps because he was remaking a five-and-a-half-hour serial as a 100-minute feature film, George Franju wastes no time in Judex, cutting straight to the first major plot development as soon as the credits have finished rolling. Irising out from a black screen (the first of many allusions to the silent era from which the material derives), we hear the name “Judex” intoned by Favraux (Michel Vitold), a corrupt banker, after which he and we are informed by his faithful valet that the word is Latin for “judge” or “avenger,” which is precisely the role the mysterious titular character will play. Favraux is holding a letter from Judex telling him that he must atone for his past misdeeds and make them right, or else he will suffer the consequences. Favraux does not take kindly to what he sees as petty blackmail, and he hires Alfred Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau), a well-meaning but generally inept private investigator, to track down the source of the letter.

And with that, the story is off and running, and it doesn’t let up until the final shot. The film’s screenplay was penned by Jacques Champreux and Francis Lacassin; the former being the grandson of, and the latter being a scholar specializing in, Louis Feuillade, the director of original 1916 serial). It is a model of narrative efficiency, even though it necessarily relies quite heavily on various plot contrivances and developments that quickly unravel if you give them more than a moment’s thought. But, that’s part of the fun; even though Franju treats the material with visual grace and a veneer of seriousness, Judex is little more than a clever riff on the popular superhero mythos that, at the time, was confined largely to B-movies, Saturday morning serials, and comic books (one wonders if Franju could have possibly imagined a cinematic era in which superhero movies constituted one of the dominate modes of filmmaking, gobbling up billions of dollars and commanding some of the top talent in the industry).

Unlike today’s superhero movies, particular Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005–2012), there are no shades of gray in Judex. Rather, Franju plays the line of good-versus-evil with an unwavering straightness, positing his hero as a stoic and unblemished crusader for what is right and just, while the villains are uniformly malicious, cruel, and wicked. Granted, Favraux is something of a mixed bag, as his greed, malevolence, and willingness to murder in cold blood are offset to some extent by the fact that he is a doting father to his porcelain-faced daughter, Jacqueline (Edith Scob), who is engaged to be married. The same cannot be said for Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), a determined femme fatale who spends much of the film in a slinky black cat suit plotting various nefarious deeds to ensure that she and her fiancée make off with Favraux’s money. There are crossings and double-crossings, kidnappings, murders, a faked murder, disguises, secret hideouts, and sudden revelations. The film even climaxes with a suspenseful rooftop battle, with Diana Monti struggling against Daisy (Sylva Koscina), a circus acrobat dressed all in white who arrives in the middle of the third act for virtually no other reason than to do to-the-death battle with her moral antithesis.

In many ways, Judex is a lot of fun, especially for discerning cinephiles who know their film history. Throughout the film we can see bits of pieces of the cinematic past—flashes of silent movie aesthetics, sequences that would delight any good surrealist, moments of cliff-hanging suspense worthy of the best serials—as well as many popular movie trends to come—not just superhero blockbusters, but also the James Bond franchise. The original Judex was one of silent film pioneer Louis Feuillade’s most popular serials, and Franju had re-discovered it when he and Cinémathèque française co-founder Henri Langlois were putting together a retrospective program for the 1938 Venice Film Festival. At the time Feuillade had been largely forgotten by the general public, and Franju’s remake of his serial is as much a tribute to one of his cinematic heroes as it is an opportunity for the great director to engage with many of his favorite themes and aesthetics, particularly paranoia and the stranger qualities of physical beauty. Both of these are most brilliantly realized in the sequence where Franju tracks Judex as he walks through a costume party dressed as an enormous bird, a moment of such surreal intensity that it holds us with an almost hallucinogenic grip.

However, Judex never fully takes off because Franju deliberately makes the film’s hero such a bore. Judex is a two-dimensional cypher, a stand-in for moral right whose mysteriousness can only take him so far. It doesn’t help that Franju cast Channing Pollock, an American magician with limited acting range, to play the role; Pollock’s amazing sleight of hand produces some incredible moments throughout the film, but his emotional rigidity weighs it down. It is interesting that Franju would make such a calculated decision regarding the protagonist, given that his previous work, the poetic horror film Eyes Without a Face (1958), was centered around a fascinating and infuriating protagonist who sacrifices his humanity to restore his daughter’s horribly scarred face, yet never entirely loses our sympathy. The daughter in Eyes is also played by Judex star Edith Scob, although she spends almost the entire film with her face hidden behind a frozen white mask. Scob’s performance in Judex doesn’t boast significantly more range, which further hinders our involvement in the characters’ plight. Thankfully, Francine Bergé is on hand to camp it up as Diana Monti, who doesn’t think twice about pulling off some of her worst tricks disguised as a nun. While Franju may make goodness look as dull as dirt, at least he had the good sense to make the film’s villains memorably wicked.

Judex Criterion Collection Blu-ray / DVD Combo Set

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Interview from 2007 with cowriter Jacques Champreux
  • Interview from 2012 with actor Francine Bergé
  • Franju le visionnaire (1998) documentary about Georges Franju
  • Hôtel des Invalides (1951) short film directed by Franju
  • Le grand Méliès (1952) short film directed by Franju
  • Essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien, along with a selection of commentary by Franju
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJune 17, 2014

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s beautiful high-definition presentation of Judex comes from a new 2K digital restoration, scanned from the original 35mm camera negative. Marcel Fradetal’s sumptuous black-and-white cinematography looks gorgeous, and the image retains a sharp filmic appearance with a nice veneer of grain. No significant wear and tear is in evidence, and the image’s contract and black levels look spot-on. The lossless monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm soundtrack negative and digitally restored, which has Maurice Jarre’s lush score sounding better than ever.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Criterion has assembled a nice array of supplements, all of which have been drawn from the archives. We have two new-ish interviews, one with cowriter Jacques Champreux from 2007 (which previously appeared on the Masters of Cinema disc) and one with actor Francine Bergé from 2012. Those who are not deeply familiar with Georges Franju will appreciate the inclusion of Franju le visionnaire (1998), a 50-minute program that covers the entirety of the director’s eclectic career, which we can experience firsthand via two of his early short films: Hôtel des Invalides (1951), which is about the Paris military complex, and Le grand Méliès (1952), a biographical portrait of the great silent film innovator Georges Méliès. The thick insert booklet includes a new essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a selection of commentary by Franju drawn from numerous interviews and publications.

    Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)




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