Although Judex ends with a title card reading “in homage to Louis Feuillade,” Georges Franju’s “remake” of Feuillade’s 1916 silent serial of the same name is less a reverential gesture than a rejoinder to a cinematic culture mistaken that silver-screen fantasy necessarily equates with pop ephemera. Consider the second half of the film’s concluding title card: “in memory of a time that was not happy: 1914.” Franju’s words incite exhortation for immediate recourse to the film’s outwardly peppy, suave caper narrative, which on the surface appears to revel in the specifics of genre archetype and costuming. There’s Judex (Channing Pollock) wearing a black cape, Diana Monti (Francine Bergé) in a black, cat-like one-piece, and Daisy (Sylva Koscina), whose deus ex machina heroics are performed in a skin-tight, lily-white acrobat outfit. Underneath the pulpy sheen, however, is a much angrier, meticulous découpage, rife not with film-specific allusions so much as rhythmic cadences that plead for invigoration of a rapidly depreciating interest in silent-cinema aesthetics and a vigorous utilization of pop cinema for political means. What Judex rebukes, ultimately, is nostalgia.
An iris shot following the opening credits reveals Favraux (Michel Vitold), who almost inaudibly utters “Judex,” a name he’s told by an associate means “judge” or “avenger.” Favraux’s not only a crook involved with insider trading, but his entire fortune derives from the Panama scandals of the late-19th century, suitably reified as a collection of documents, which becomes the film’s central MacGuffin following Favraux’s mysterious and sudden death. The narrative details of Judex are deliberately twisty and splintered, which suitably allows Franju’s more visually based inclinations to play out within the grandiose spaces of the rarefied milieu. Tracking and wide shots, especially in outdoor scenes, often isolate characters within the frame or suture spaces together. Take, for instance, a series of shots in which Jacqueline (Édith Scob) saunters down the impossibly long corridor of her father’s home, gawking into all of the empty rooms. Her glances immediately recall Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneu), whose earlier, more lecherous gazing at two housemaids through a small opening, recalling Norman Bates in Psycho , insidiously intimates the embedded erotic desires inherent to Franju’s impending phantasmagoria. Once atop the staircase, Jacqueline seemingly transforms into Diana, as a match cut concludes her assent up the staircase of a far more proletarian abode. Cinema, it seems, can flatten class distinctions via spatial collapse, but the corrupted diegesis of Judex isn’t absolved from such matters, a terse evocation not even fellow Left Bank filmmaker Alain Resnais achieves in Last Year at Marienbad.
Franju’s most directed dispensing of juvenilia comes in his treatment of Judex, whose screen time is considerably lesser than either Jacqueline or Diana. Even during the denouement, it’s not Judex that battles Diana, but Daisy, whose good-versus-evil fisticuffs are literalized by their diverging black-and-white attire, though Franju suitably plays the confrontation muted—nearly silent—with only ambient noises and faint strings accompanying the fight. Franju repeatedly shirks any such reveling in violent confrontation, refusing to aestheticize revenge-as-pleasure. Franju, then, stands in contrast to Judex, whose proclivity for torturous lairs, odd technologies, obfuscating theatrics, and anonymous henchmen aligns his preoccupations more with the young boy (Benjamin Boda), whose fascinations and mimetic interests while accompanying Cocantin suggest innocence, but also impotence from adult life. Judex, whose only charms appear to be literal magic tricks and a strong jawline, is a child’s eroticized fantasy of masculinity, posturing behind a disguise rather than cultivating a discernible, singular self. The boy, however, is capable of grief, as he mournfully stands over Diana’s body, following her tangle with Daisy. Judex is afforded no such display of emotion, since his pleasures derive not from empathy, but self-aggrandizement—much like Favraux, ironically imprisoned for crimes that Judex, on a similarly ideological level, is likewise guilty.
While such a dense subtext increasingly reveals itself, Judex avoids nostalgia precisely because its exact intentions remain enveloped within Franju’s mutedly vociferous images, redolent of oneiric pretenses, but not in allegiance to them. Although Judex walks down a beach with Jacqueline at the film’s end, there’s no explicit indication as to the significance of such a finale; much like Thieves’ Highway, the concluding happiness is jet-black irony, given not only what has preceded, but in the case of Judex, what follows, in the form of a devastatingly self-aware title card. Franju denies rapprochement, and though he undoubtedly cherished the silent-era fantasies of Georges Méliès and Feuillade, he approaches a cinematic feat only Guy Maddin has managed since: phenomenological reflexivity.
Aside from sporadic scratches running down the right side of the frame, which likely couldn’t be avoided due to the print, Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer of Georges Franju’s voluminous images could hardly be stronger. Blacks are rich, deep and in suitable contrast to whites in darker settings, though the transfer’s primary strengths are on best display during outdoor sequences, maintaining equal balance and clarity between foreground and background, with grain remaining present throughout. Audio is also particularly strong for an LPCM mono track, with the film’s nightmarish score, dialogue, and ambient sounds appropriately mixed for a full, rich soundscape.
Considering the lack of a commentary track on Criterion’s Eyes Without a Face disc, it’s especially disappointing to find one missing here as well. Having said that, the extras are impressive. Interviews with Jacques Champreux and Francine Bergé discuss various processes in the production, from on-set advice to how Franju came to make the film altogether. "Franju le Visionnaire" is an amiable starter kit for Franju beginners, but holds pleasures for devoted fans alike, not least because it features clips from Franju films that haven’t received Region 1 releases, most notably Head Against the Wall. While these features are helpful, the most notable inclusions are two out-of-print shorts: Hôtel des Invalides, from 1951, and Le Grand Méliès, from 1952. Each reveals a filmmaker that was able to wear many hats, vacillating from experimental documentarian in the former to adroit illusionist in the later. Combined with Blood of the Beasts on the Eyes Without a Face disc, Criterion has provided an excellent starting point for grappling with Franju’s work. Finally, a booklet with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and a selection of commentary by Franju are helpful in unraveling the many valences of Judex and contextualizing the film within Franju’s oeuvre.
Keep your superheroes, kids: With a scorching audio-visual transfer and a suitable array of extras, Criterion’s muscular packaging of Georges Franju’s maddeningly dexterous masterpiece is the antidote to summer-blockbuster overload you’ve been looking for.