Director: Georges Franju
Stars: Channing Pollock (Judex / Vallieres), Francine Bergé (Diana Monti / Marie Verdier), Edith Scob (Jacqueline Favraux), Théo Sarapo (Morales), Michel Vitold (Favraux).
Genre: Crime Drama / Adventure
The shot begins with a pair of nice men’s shoes. Black. Polished. The feet in them are attached to a pair of legs in some dark, neatly pressed trousers. We pan up this dapper looking gentleman in smart evening wear, only to find that on his head he wears a great, elaborate bird’s head. A gigantic cowl that is both sleek and utterly disturbing. An arresting, oversized facsimile of long feathers and a pronounced curved beak. It’s one of the movies’ most shocking, fascinating reveals. Welcome to the world of Georges Franju; perhaps French cinema’s greatest visual terrorist.
The scene continues. The masked figure picks up a dead dove, displaying it in his hand like something of importance, something precious. He carries it through the halls of a lavish country manor, and as he passes other guests we realise we’re at a masked ball. Of course it’s a masked ball; what other occasion could prove so decadent yet sinister? If anything,our mystery figure’s walk through the house is more startling than his initial presentation. The other partygoers – most of whom wear far less elaborate headgear – seem solemnly transfixed by our figure with the dove. A sense of occasion or ceremony. Their deliberate, trance-like stares, his funereal walk. Few directors can summon the feeling of being in a nightmare as swiftly and as intensely as Franju. His is the cinema of dreams.
As masterful as Franju was at sculpting a sense of terror in his audience (he was the man behind 1960’s exceptional horror Eyes Without A Face), it is not his primary intention with Judex. No, our bird-headed man turns out to be a magician, performing a trick for the guests at this luxurious party. And much like this mystery figure, Franju’s intent here is to captivate and wow the viewer. Judex is a caper movie, an entertainment piece. On these terms it is a sorely under-seen masterpiece.
Franju’s inspiration for Judex came from a 1916 serial of the same name from Louis Feuillade. In Judex he attempts (and, in hindsight, succeeds) in aping the sensation of viewing a multi-part escapade, an episodic concoction of thrills and intrigue surrounding the titular avenger. The caped Judex is a classic creation. A man working outside of the law to his own code, a master of disguise and deception. He even has his own secret base – the kind any self-respecting Bond villain would be proud of. With these fanciful trappings Judex tells you what kind of movie it is – pure high wire escapism, albeit the kind brought to the screen as loving homage by a filmmaker of inimitable genius.
Though the film is openly indebted to the silent era, it retains a sharp sense of modernism for the 60’s. This comes not from the fashions or architecture – all firmly-routed in early 20th century – but in the sardonic (even cynical) tone. Franju’s Judex is a more morally ambiguous figure navigating a world of liars and the corrupted. This sense of modern decline is most evident in ambitious banker Favraux, who at the top of the picture mercilessly runs down a poor farmer seemingly for his own amusement, safe in the knowledge that his butler Vallieres will dispose of the evidence. Franju plays terrorist again, scaring his audience with the thought of the impunity of privileged pariahs. Murder without justice.
But fear not. Judex is here. And as the film moves through its episodic encounters, the tone lightens and becomes happily mischievous even as further nefarious deeds take place. Gradually the sinister clouds wrought by masked balls and hit ‘n’ run atrocities disperse for brighter skies. Now the outlook favours the high adventure of cat burglaries and rooftop pursuits. The tone becomes one of adventure and risk. Franju’s film is a little rascal.
Judex orchestrates the poisoning of Favraux in order to right the injustices he perceives the banker culpable of, but also out of love and admiration for Jacqueline, widowed by Favraux’s apparent death. Her vulnerability is played out in a quiet sequence in which she wanders the expansive country house alone, peeking into rooms as though a visitor in her own home.
Soon after, opportunistic governess Diane Monti (an enterprising villain equally adept at dual identities) and her lover Morales break into the house to steal Favraux’s most incriminating documents. Judex becomes Jacqueline’s protector, even as he holds her husband hostage – the poisoning merely another illusion.
Judex is a joy no matter which disguise it wears, be it the seductive nightmare world of the masked ball, of the comedic jauntiness evident in Diane and Morales’ nonchalant plotting on a cafe dance floor. That the film so easily navigates its tonal shifts is to the credit of Franju, who holds court over all. The aforementioned dancing scene, which is inherently funny, is immediately followed by an incredibly creepy scene of underground surveillance, an Orwellian sequence that peaks with a moment of spontaneous combustion. The imprisoned Favraux’s reaction to this feels like a haunting precursor for Sheryl Lee’s in David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me. A moment of horrible realisation that fate lies in the hands of others.
I enjoy the fanciful elements of Judex, reminiscent to me of the tone attempted a few years later by Mario Bava with Danger: Diabolik (with equal joie de vivre but less mastery), yet as a horror fan I still return most urgently for the masked ball sequence described at the beginning here. It is one of those purely evocative moments for me; a scene which raises the film up above its catalogue of other successes, elevating it to a place of pure personal significance. Something which will never fail to leave me feeling oddly terrified, absolutely transfixed. I’m another dumbfounded party guest in the thrall of the magician and his resurrected doves.
Judex is preoccupied with layers and alter-egos. The real masked avenger here is Franju, lurking behind the camera, devising the different methods by which he can take the viewer somewhere else. When the film ends you feel as though it took you somewhere. You haven’t moved at all in reality; you’re still sat where you were 94 minutes earlier when the film began. The magic is that Judex takes you not just out of yourself and out of the moment, but to many different places, each of them bewitching and none of them forgettable.
Franju called the film formal, and it is when you consider the presentation and influences (not just the original but also the likes of Fantomas), but it is also incredibly playful, dreamy and, in Francine Bergé’s case, even sexy. Because of this it’s also a pleasure to revisit. It may be in black and white, but it plays like a chameleon, and every colour appeals.