At the Movies

Michael Wood

Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), expertly restored and newly released by Criterion, invites us to time travel of a double kind: into the 1960s, when it was made, into the 1910s, where it is set and where its stylistic loyalties lie. The film was respectfully received when it first appeared – no French critic wanted to attack the man who, with Henri Langlois, had founded the Cinémathèque. At this point Franju had made a number of amazing documentaries – about a slaughterhouse, about a hospital, about Georges Meliès – and three feature films, including the deeply disturbing Eyes without a Face (1960). None of this, except perhaps the work on Meliès, prepared anyone for Judex, and the respectful response included a fair degree of bafflement.

We can still share the bafflement, although part of it is easily cleared up because it is based on a historical error – in my case anyway. Weren’t the 1960s the time when French cinema was teaching us all about the present, the way the camera could catch the fleeting moment as it fled? As in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), for example, or Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960), where the famous phrase ‘truth 24 times a second’ appears? Yes, but they were also the time when Jacques Demy made his brilliant nostalgic musicals, and even mainstream cinema dipped into old serials with André Hunebelle’s Fantômas (1964 – with sequels in 1965 and 1967). It’s true that these last movies were blatant and rather plodding attempts to get into the James Bond market, also true that French mainstream cinema did all kinds of things young filmmakers didn’t like – that’s what the New Wave was about. Still, even if a homage to the past is quite different from raiding it, the near-simultaneity of the two is interesting.

Judex was a silent serial Louis Feuillade had made in 1916 – after his other serials Fantômas (1913) and The Vampires (1915). Twelve episodes, a wonderfully rambling plot involving an evil banker and his lovely daughter, a gang of crooks headed by the (initially) demure-looking governess, and of course the caped and suited gang of Judex and his assistant avengers. Franju takes all this over and compresses it into 97 minutes. And, intentionally or not, drains the whole production both of its suspense and its campiness. What’s left?

At first glance it’s the decor and the costumes, the stately home, the evening dress, the creaking and coughing old cars, and the 1960s idea of old world manners. At second glance it’s the extraordinary setpieces – many critics commented on them when the film first appeared. There is a masked ball where everyone is wearing some kind of bird face, and the avenger, who may at this point just be the faithful old retainer, since all we see of him is his suit, broad, stooped shoulders and magnificently feathered hawk’s head, rather surprisingly performs a few magic tricks, releasing doves into the air from what seemed to be tightly crumpled handkerchiefs. Our host, Faveaux the evil banker, has already received two written threats from Judex, both of them telling him to hand over half his fortune to his victims before midnight or else. Only half, we note; an equitable avenger. The hawk’s-headed figure hands the banker a drink, a clock strikes midnight, the banker begins a toast, and drops dead.

Another elaborate scene involves Judex’s men climbing the wall of a tall building. Judex himself has already scaled it, and so has the circus artist, played by Sylva Koscina and plainly brought into the film for her glamour rather than anything the plot needs her to do. ‘I could have done without her,’ is what Franju rather unchivalrously said in an interview. These two were pretty quick about it, though, and the camera lingers over the three men on the wall, meticulously following their laborious climb. They look like human spiders, and the wall itself looks like a sticky canvas, the whole picture creating something of the effect of a comic without looking like a comic.

The larger and more integrated results of the film’s compression are a little harder to describe. One of these has to do with Franju’s timing. The film’s slowness feels like a form of politeness to the characters and the audience. The actors don’t hurry and the film doesn’t hurry from shot to shot. Associated with this tempo is an effect of innocence, very hard to achieve in a knowing period piece, but unmistakably present here. The actors are not allowed to wink or wallow, they play every moment as if they had never heard of anything like their story before: as if a bad guy had never been caught, as if an innocent woman had never been kidnapped. A large part of this burden of innocence is carried by Edith Scob as the banker’s daughter (she also appears as the Virgin Mary in Buñuel’s Milky Way). She is calm, intelligent, unruffled by what would ruffle anyone else we can think of, and in Franju’s words, ‘gives credence to an action that would not be believable without her’. Franju uses what seems to be an odd example of what he means. You could describe Edith Scob, he says, ‘by saying she is drowned if thrown into water and resurrected if pulled out several hours later’. In fact, he is literally narrating a beautiful sequence in the film, where the Scob character is dropped into a river and floats downstream for a mile or two. A child spots her, and two fishermen pull her out. To say we thought she was dead but learned she wasn’t is to describe a (more or less) plausible physical process. To say she is first drowned and then resurrected is quite different, and that difference is what Franju is after.

Franju also says that ‘any magic’ in his film is there ‘because the action vanishes behind the spectacular’. He could mean many things by this remark – he could just be pointing to the setpieces I’ve mentioned and their many equivalents in the film. ‘Judex is a purely formal film,’ he said, not so helpfully. In fact, viewed at this late date in the history of film, the action vanishes into something other than spectacle. The spectacle itself almost vanishes when it comes to action rather than setpieces, and the real energies of the film are not in the antics of the villains – trying to kill the banker’s daughter, kidnapping the banker, who turns out not to be dead – or the rather hapless heroics of Judex and his boys, but in the way the actors so perfectly persist in their roles.

This is especially true of Francine Bergé – I remembered her in Losey’s Mr Klein, but didn’t recall the poise and clarity of her performance in Judex. She first appears as the governess whom the banker wants to marry. All his money will be hers, he says. She firmly says she is not for sale. But she has another idea when she eavesdrops on a conversation in which the loyal retainer recounts the banker’s long history of misdeeds, adducing documents to prove them. Bergé as Diana doesn’t become the gangster’s moll: she becomes the moll as gangster, bossing her boyfriend around, breaking into the stately home, ordering killings, tying up and taunting Judex himself – he was presumably so tired by his climb up the wall that he just gave himself up. Bergé’s relish in this performance, her sense that playing it straight will get you everything you might get from playing it ironically, and more, is especially clear when she is dressed up as a nun, as her counterpart is in Feuillade’s version. She locates us in a world of absolute, disciplined, mean calculation, as securely as Scob’s innocence places us in a world of magic and religion.

This is to say that far from being purely formal, Franju’s film takes us to one of those places where we are always hoping movies will lead us, a realm where the medium may or may not tell us the truth 24 times a second, but where it certainly finds and honours the fantasies we care about. We are perhaps not as grateful as we should be for such moments. Or are they just rare, in the movies or out of them? When did we last think seriously, or naively, or wishfully, of resurrection, or a villainy so pure it makes all virtue seem half-hearted?