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Director: Georges Franju
Writer: Arthur Bernède, Jacques Champreux
Cast: Channing Pollock, Francine Bergé, and Edith Scob
Length: 104 min
Label: Criterion Collection
Release Date: June 17, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.67:1
Type: Black and White
Audio: French: LPCM 1.0
- 2007 interview with Jacques Champreux
- 2013 interview with Francine Berge
- Franju le vissionair: Documentary Featurette
- Two Franju short films: Hotel Invalides and Le grand Melies
- Booklet featuring essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and commentary by Franju
By 1914 Louis Feuillade, creator and director of Fantômas (1913) and Les Vampires (1915), was under fire for creating serials that allegedly glorified the criminal element. In response, and as a way to calm the reaction, Feuillade created Judex (1916), a serial that focused on the titular hero who fought against the corrupt and evil banker Favraux. The series ran for twelve twenty-five minute episodes and included a short prologue and epilogue. Created in 1914, but delayed by the outbreak of the First World War, the series was released in 1916; spawning a sequel two years later. The series was briefly revived in the mid 1930s by Feuillade’s son-in-law, Maurice Champreux, but it wasn’t until 1963 that Judex would again attract critical attention. Following the release of Thérèse Desqueyroux, Georges Franju (Les yeux sans visage aka Eyes Without a Face) took on the task of adapting Feuillade’s serial—despite the fact that he would have preferred to remake Fantômas, which contained subject matter he felt closer to. Despite his initial concern, Franju’s vision of Judex is a surreal and genre-bending work of art that can now, thanks to Criterion Collection, be enjoyed on Blu-Ray.
Judex, while at its core an adaptation of Feuillade’s original, departs from the 1916 series in many important ways. Although the film borrows the basic storyline from the original, Franju chose to omit a lot of the backstory. In fact, it would appear as if Franju spends more time developing the film’s villains than he does the heroes. Ultimately, story seems of only secondary concern for Franju—many narrative elements exist only for the sake of moving the film forward—as the film’s visual nature and atmosphere take center stage.
One large departure exists in Franju’s casting of the American magician, Channing Pollock, for the titular role. As noted by Geoffrey O’Brien in the included essay, Pollock’s acting is limited (to put it gently), causing the character of Judex to feel one-dimensional. This one-dimensionality is evidently decided, as it corresponds to Franju’s desire to adapt one of Feuillade’s anti-heroes, as opposed to the heroic Judex. Franju’s Judex is arguably wholly unconcerned with Judex as a character, using him more as a vehicle to push the plot forward. Another added aspect of the one-dimensionality of Judex, comes from the enigmatic aura it gives the character. From his fantastical introduction until the film’s conclusion, it is never explicit what Judex is feeling or even perhaps thinking. Franju strips any backstory created in the earlier renditions, leaving Judex’s motivations completely ambiguous—perhaps even arbitrary.There exists two key scenes that elevate the film outside of the scope of ordinary fanfare. The first of these scenes introduces the character of Judex, although the audience is unaware at this point of his identity. In a trance-like movement, the camera begins on the image of what appears to be a dead bird. The camera holds on the image of the bird and the figure that holds it—a man in a tuxedo fit with a Max Ernst-esque Bird masquerade mask—creating a tableaux; a shot intended to be marveled before the motion begins. From this point, the figure begins to move through the party, becoming the center of attention. Capturing the eye of the party, the ominous masked man revives the bird. The atmosphere conjured by Franju is nothing short of surreal and haunting, emerging as one of the most memorable and beautiful shots in the film.
The second shot, and probably the most talked about, is of Farvaux in Judex’s chamber. Utilizing a series of reflexive elements, Franju frames Farvaux against himself through what appears to be a mirror-like-monitor that follows his moves while simultaneously presenting them back to him. The shot-within-a-shot both comments on the artificiality of film itself, while presenting an interesting commentary on surveillance. While essentially a monitor, the device also appears to be a camera, a device that both captures and displays. The device seems to comment on the nature of being watched; asking the question how would you act if you had to watch your every move?
As one can expect with Criterion, the picture quality on this 1080p 1.67:1 transfer is of absolute perfection. Film grain is kept beautifully intact, there are no signs of digital manipulation, and the depth of contrast is vibrant. The transfer really allows for the range in contrast to flourish; the extreme blacks are crisp without the loss in detail common to deep blacks and share the screen beautifully with the bright and detailed whites. What we have here is an almost perfect black and white image.
Similarly, the audio is without fault. The LPCM 1.0 lossless mix allows all of the aural aspects of the film to exist, without overshadowing each other. Whether it’s a barrage of sound effects, a mixture of dialogue, the moving score, or all of the above, the mix allows every individual element to shine, creating a balanced and dynamic track.
While it would have been nice—albeit space-consuming—to have the original series as a special feature on the disc, Criterion has, as always, delivered a fine set of special features. First, there are two interviews—one from 2007 with cowriter Jacques Champreux, and a second from 2012 with actor Francine Bergé—that offer an insight into working with Franju. In addition, there is a 50-minute featurette, entitled Franju le visionnaire, which chronicles the career of Franju. The documentary featurette is a nice addition as it includes interviews with Franju. There are also two of Franju’s short films included in the package; one from 1951 entitled, Hôtel des Invalides, and another from 1952, entitled Le grand Méliès. While the short films are both documentaries, they do offer a nice glimpse into Franju’s early career. Finally, an informative essay on the “heart” of Judex, written by Geoffrey O’Brien, is included.
Judex may not be as provocative—or nearly as important—as Franju’s other work, but nonetheless it is an entertaining and stunning film. It could be said that you can never go wrong with a Criterion release, and time-and-time again they are proving this mantra correct. Packed with great features and including a nearly perfect replication of the filmic elements, Criterion’s Judex is the perfect companion for cinephiles alike. Borrowing elements from the mystery genre, Science Fiction, and the surrealists/arthouse, Judex is a collage of hybridity that entertains as much as it incites.