Director: George Franju
Writer: Jacques Champreux, Francis Lacassin
DP: Marcel Fradetal
Editor: Gilbert Natot
Score: Maurice Jarre
Producer: Robert de Nesle
Starring: Channing Pollock, Francine Bergé, Édith Scob
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 1 hr. 43 min.
Georges Franju's Judex is a remake of the 1916 Louis Feuillade serial of the same name. The film is unusual for its use of intertitles, fades, and irises, which can be attributed to Franju paying homage to Feuillade and his contemporaries. The film is under two hours in length, and is therefore more condensed than the five-hour original, but its story is still told in episodic segments.
However, I find Judex less interesting for its similarities to the original than for its similarities to Franju's other work. One of his most famous films, 1960's Eyes Without a Face, bears a number of similarities to Judex, both aesthetically and thematically. Both films take place among ornate, imposing architecture, and use masks as a motif. Both films involve people being deceived and attacked by people who hide their identities, and both feature underground worlds which are characterized as places where people reveal their true faces (both literally and figuratively).
The film is about an unscrupulous rich man named Favraux who has been receiving threatening letters from a mysterious vigilante called Judex. Eventually we learn that Judex intends to punish Favraux for his crimes against various people and society at large. However, Judex revises his plans when he finds that Jacqueline, Favraux's daughter, is a kinder, more moral person than her father, and decides to spare Favraux for her sake. Unfortunately, this plan becomes complicated by Diana, one of Favraux's servants, who had hoped to steal her employer's fortune for herself.
Judex sets up an interesting balance of power between its heroes and its villains. Favraux ends up the least influential character, and most of the film plays out as a battle between Judex and Diana. Both of them commit a series of crimes throughout the film, but neither of them is ever caught, except by the other. This is possible because no other character ever suspects them; even when they act in full view of a crowd, no one notices that anything is amiss. They're able to do this because they disguise themselves as servicepeople, effectively making them little more than part of the environment in the eyes of onlookers.
With this comes the somewhat disturbing notion that those most expected to follow the rules have the greatest potential to break them without getting caught. Favraux was able to do it, owing to his wealth, traditionalism, and false promises; Judex and Diana both intend to turn it back around on him. The difference between them is that Diana wants to perpetuate this state of affairs while Judex wants to end it. Also, though Diana and Judex prove to be evenly matched opponents, Diana seems less sure of herself, hesitating at times as if testing whether she really wants to go through with her plans.
Judex is decisive, and his second-nature sense of justice allows him not only to know when he is most justified in breaking the rules, but also to have a perfect eye for people; he always has precisely the allies he needs to suit any situation. Of course, Judex is a fantasy; he has access to impossibly advanced technology, he controls a pack of dogs through unknown means, the film contains no explanation as to where he came from (a change from the Feuillade original), and he may even have supernatural powers.
Judex's introduction is a strange, almost dreamlike scene that contributes nothing to the narrative, just cinematic poetry. He wears a bird mask and stares directly into the camera, then picks up a dead dove and walks into a bal masque being held at a mansion. Maurice Jarre's score, somewhere between foreboding and romantically sad, is the only audible sound. He navigates the hallways of the mansion, through a crowd of people also wearing bird masks; he's surrounded by couples of dancing birds, but his only partner is the dead bird in his hand. Only a few people notice him, and only briefly. Most importantly, we don't even know yet that the character we're following is Judex. All we see is the beauty of the mansion, but we're guided through it by an anonymous character whose only function is to carry the presence of death.
Judex is a charismatic hero because of the similarities between him and the villains; we come to see him as the one who rises above temptation. Many characters break the rules, but he's the only one who does it for a higher purpose. The film is entertaining because of its juxtaposition between such a hero and a narrative that grows increasingly chaotic. However, Judex's presence is kind of weightless; there's no grounding for how outlandish he is. His introduction is by far the most striking and memorable thing in the film, but it's infinitely more somber and ominous than every other scene. That scene's initial effects linger as a constant reminder of the consequences Judex doesn't have to face, of the hardship that exists outside of the film's otherwise simplistic and fantastical world.
In Judex, Franju uses the narrative to give the audience satisfaction in seeing the downfall of people who break the rules for their own gain. However, he also pulls the rug out from under the element of that narrative that causes the downfall; Judex can defeat Diana and Favraux because Judex also breaks the rules, but unfortunately, Judex doesn't exist. It has a conventional ending for a superhero film, but it leaves you feeling as if only a small victory has been won against a sad world.