Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Georges Franju | Judex
characters of many faces
by Douglas Messerli
Jacques Champreux and Francis Lacassin (screenplay), Georges Franju (director) Judex / 1963, USA 1966
Georges Franju’s 1963 film, Judex, is one of those films that critics might be immediately puzzled about how to describe to viewers who have never seen it. Despite Franju’s often very original filmmaking, this work is based on a 1916 French film by the great serial cinema-creator, Louis Feuillade (several of whose shorter films I have previously reviewed), in which the same character and some of the same events enchanted the early 20th-century filmgoers.
Yet, Franju makes this film, suggested to him by Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux, who also as a collaborator on the script, with many completely contrary movies from the original. Franju has long wanted to remake Feuillade’s Fantômas, for which he could not get permission. No matter, Franju took matters into his own hands, focusing on his own beautiful black-and-white images, which he’d already established in his 1960 classic, Eyes Without a Face, while, as he had also done in that film, basically ignoring the acting talents of his characters. Franju loved the inter-connectedness of
all his films, while embracing film history in general. In this case, he hired Édith Scob, who played the terribly scarred and frightened daughter in that earlier film to play the villain’s daughter Jacqueline; as the hero he chose the handsome American actor, Channing Pollack to be Judex, but dressed him up throughout much of the film as an elderly bearded man, Vallieres, serving as secretary to the film’s villain, banker, Favraux; the building-climbing cat-like woman, also nanny to Jacqueline’s child (Francine Bergé), is eerily similar to another Feuillade villain, Irma Vep in his Les Vampires; and Franju even manages to bring in Fantômas as reading matter for the bumbling but gentle detective Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau).
Indeed, it appears that the director spent more time on his cinematography and numerous film associations than on finding actors who could fully express his characters psychology and motivations. Entire portions of the original were jettisoned, making, at times, for inexplicable behavior and acts. Why, for instance is Vallieres so determined to out the evil-doings of his employer, and why has he waited so long to accomplish what we gradually perceive is revenge? Why does the same rather staid and boring Vallieres suddenly become a kind of bird-loving magician, returning to life a seemingly dead dove before conjuring up an entire flock of the same birds, and how does he poison Favraux without the man drinking a sip of the poisoned wine he has offered? These and dozens of other questions throw the viewer into a sense of utter confusion, which, evidently, is was Franju sought.
For any excitement in this film lies within its sudden and utter transformations: Vallieres becoming the matinée idol-like figure (the producers noted his facial resemblance to Rudolph Valentino), Favraux, a dead corpse, suddenly returning to life, and the formerly demur nanny becoming a knife-packing cat before transforming herself again into a nun right out of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. The previously passive Jacqueline, after her father’s apparent death, even becomes noble, denying her inheritance to help pay back those whom her father has defrauded. In his story-telling capacities (he begins the tale of Alice in Wonderland) to Jacqueline’s daughter, Cocantin becomes a better teacher than her nanny, Diana, might ever have been.
With each of these shifts, moreover, Franju’s film also sheds its genre, taking on various movie types: a revenge drama, a spooky murder mystery, a devious film about kidnapping, with its almost comic intertitles, a silent movie with spoken dialogue, and, finally, in its absolute devotion to birds, a kind of tribute to Hitchcock’s movie of the same year, The Birds. As The New York Times justifably commented at the time of Judex’s US release: “It is hard to tell whether Georges Franju, who made it, wants us to laugh at it or take it seriously."
Given my basically contrarian nature, I’d argue that the film is both a loving and almost comical tribute of the absurd Feuillade original while also being a kind of serious exploration of the very tropes of filmmaking that for so long dominated French cinema. One must remember that Franju, as co-founder of the Cinémathèque Française film archive, knew film history intimately, and in this film was not only exploring some of its various manifestations but putting himself and his films into that context. If to many viewers of Judex the work might seem more like pastiche than a coherent movie, I agree with them, but simply ask them to enjoy the circus of nods to popular film history. This may be a kind of silly movie at times, but it is also an extremely intelligent one which ought to be take utterly seriously. The film is clearly not one of his greatest, but if seen from the right perspective is so fascinating that it cannot be forgotten.
Los Angeles, July 10, 2018