Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Georges Franju's Judex is an arch, playful tribute to the serials of the influential silent filmmaker Louis Feuillade. Franju shuffles through the plot of Feuillade's lengthy serial of the same name, about an adventurer named Judex (Channing Pollock) whose revenge against the corrupt banker Favraux (Michel Vitold) unleashes a complicated series of schemes. The film is defined by its complex twists and turns, its melodramatic indulgences: a wronged father (René Génin) who's searching for his missing son; the fiendish femme fatale Marie Verdier (Francine Bergé) who faces off against Judex; the plots centering around Jacqueline (Edith Scob), the daughter of Favraux; the incompetent detective Cocantin (Max Montavon), who seems more comfortable as a babysitter than an investigator. The film opens with Favraux being blackmailed by Judex, who threatens to expose the banker's many crimes if he doesn't give his ill-gained fortune back to his victims.
Fittingly, Franju opens with an iris-out, and will close the film with an iris-in, only the most obvious of his nods to his inspiration. Franju sets his film primarily in the same kinds of gritty, realistic locales favored by Feuillade, who loved shooting on the streets and in scenic exteriors. The texture of the image here is grainy and dark, tending toward shadowy nighttime scenes where cloaked figures skulk through the abandoned streets, framed against the moon, heading out on mysterious errands. Franju is riffing on the magical, playful qualities of Feuillade's classic serials, and the imagery is lush. Judex's grand entrance in particular is stunning, set at a costume ball where he arrives in a massive bird mask, his outstretched, upturned palm holding a seemingly dead bird before him as he weaves through the revelers, with Franju's camera bobbing behind him. He then proceeds to perform a series of magic tricks for the assembled guests, pulling scarves from his sleeves and turning them into doves, which then flutter around the room. And, foreshadowing one of the film's central twists, he even brings the dead bird back to life with a gesture, allowing it too to fly off his palm into the audience. It's an amazing introduction, establishing the film's basic theme, its tribute to the magic and mystery of the cinema, the sleight of hand by which the filmmakers can divert the audience's attention and create startling effects.
This scene establishes the sense of low-key fun at the film's core, its predilection for toying with genre elements. This is especially true of the gleefully evil femme fatale Marie, the film's best character — and its best performance in Bergé, who really projects the slinky, haughty evil of her versatile seductress/criminal. Stalking through the night in her tight black jumpsuit and domino mask, she seems like a master criminal, which makes it easy to miss the fact that all of her schemes actually don't go so well. In one of the film's most delightful inventions, when she's breaking into Favraux's house, her henchman is snared by a handcuff trap that unexpectedly pops out of a desk, right at the spot where the crook had his arm resting to pick a lock. Marie is actually foiled at every turn, often by the unflappable Judex, who drifts around with his black cape flopping behind him and a black hat on his head.
Franju's approach to this story is inherently anti-logical, infusing Judex's adventures with a laidback, drowsy surrealism. The spectacle of the bird-headed hero performing magic tricks is absurd enough, but more subtle is the way the film utterly rejects the idea of death, allowing characters to pass fluidly between states. Characters are constantly being declared dead, sometimes even buried, only to suddenly come back to life, as though they had merely fainted and were able to recover: the convention becomes so familiar that when the villainess actually seems to remain dead after falling off a building at the denouement, it's startling. Franju's characters defy death, not because of any narrative logic — these resurrections are never explained — but simply because the magic of cinema and the strange anti-logic of this film allows it. Similarly, Franju creates complex shots where the camera starts from the distinctive Feuillade static camera angle, at a medium distance from the action, only to begin flowing into the scene, creating new compositions. This fluid camerawork suggests the technological limitations of Feuillade's cinema only to replace it with the more sophisticated possibilities available to Franju. At other times, he achieves striking effects with the editing, as when he cuts from Jacqueline walking up a staircase in her home to Marie walking up one as she schemes against the other woman.
The film's pacing is languid despite all this plotting, allowing plenty of time for Franju to explore the texture of the images, the vibrant characters, and the subtle jokes embedded in the mise en scène and performances. Perhaps the best sequence is the denouement, which keeps escalating as Judex and Cocantin engineer a showdown with Marie and her lover. It's a rich scene, though the action is less important than the whimsical touches, like the way the detective acquires a young sidekick who imitates his idol's every move, parroting his shuffling gait, the way he folds his arms behind his back, the way he nervously paces while waiting for Judex to save the day. At the scene's climax, a circus suddenly pulls up, owned by one of a Cocantin's friends, an acrobat (Sylva Koscina) who thrusts herself into the middle of the action by climbing up a sheer brick wall to the top of the building, where she rescues Judex from the clutches of the villains. Before she does, however, she pauses at the top, smiling and waving as she looks down at Judex's masked henchmen clustered below, looking up with the white eyeholes in their masks seeming to glow in the dark. She finally winds up stealing the show from the titular hero, even getting the final battle with Marie. The villain in her tight black jumpsuit and the acrobat in an equally form-fitting white outfit: light and dark, white hats and black hats, good and evil, all the movie conventions about heroes and villains inscribed in the clothes of these two women.
Franju's Judex is a compelling tribute to the silent cinema and the conventions of classic, pulpy genre storytelling. This film takes what might've been a straightforward story and infuses it with a moody visual sensibility and a subtly surrealist perspective that really locates the magic and mystery in these well-worn genre archetypes.