Watching Georges Franju’s 1963 mystery-thriller-whatsit Judex with no foreknowledge of its source material makes for a confounding experience. At first, it appears to be a fairly straightforward narrative involving a business tycoon named Favraux (Michel Vitold) who’s receiving threatening letters from an anonymous vigilante calling himself Judex—the Latin origin of the English word “judge.” Favraux quickly hires a private detective, Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau), though he seems less concerned about his own safety than about that of his daughter, Jacqueline (Edith Scob), who’s about to be married. In short order, however, Favraux murders an ex-con who went to prison on his behalf and is now demanding justice; Judex (Channing Pollock) apparently kills Favraux at a costume ball, only to dig up the body, revive it, and then hold Favraux captive in an underground dungeon. And Jacqueline’s former governess, Diana (Francine Bergé), starts plotting with a confederate to steal incriminating documents from Favraux’s study—efforts that see her donning everything from a catsuit to a nun’s habit and wielding both knives and hypodermics.
That description only scratches the surface of Judex‘s escalating lunacy, which makes a lot more sense once you learn that Franju’s film is a condensed remake of a 12-part serial by Louis Feuillade, originally released in 1916. Cramming five hours’ worth of events into just 97 minutes results in a breakneck pace that only emphasizes the story’s absurdist nature; there’s a one-damn-thing-after-another giddiness here that calls to mind Bill Murray in Tootsie, sitting in front of the TV and muttering “That is one nutty hospital.” At the same time, however, Franju—whose best-known film is 1959’s spectacularly creepy Eyes Without A Face—occasionally stops the movie cold in order to revel in haunting atmosphere. Judex’s entrance at the costume ball, wearing a huge bird head (like several other partygoers) and carrying an apparently dead dove, is an unforgettable coup de cinema, regal and funereal and hypnotic. Franju was so much more concerned with pageantry than with character that he cast Pollock, an American magician, in the title role, tolerating a wooden performance, because it allowed for amazing feats of sleight-of-hand.
Perhaps inspired by Judex, Olivier Assayas centered his 1996 film, Irma Vep, on a fictional remake of Feuillade’s earlier serial Les Vampires, allowing him to have Maggie Cheung run around rooftops in a tight black catsuit, just as Musidora had done in the original. Musidora also played Diana in the 1916 Judex, and Bergé, taking over the role in Franju’s version, isn’t nearly as hesitant as Cheung was about replicating the over-the-top mannerisms of silent screen acting. (To be fair, Cheung is playing a fictionalized version of herself in Irma Vep, and her questionable suitability for the role is part of the film’s meta-critique.) Bergé’s imitation is deliriously deranged, and made all the more potent by how placid and unremarkable her character appears when first introduced. Meanwhile, Scob, who’s so quietly disturbing as the masked, disfigured daughter in Eyes Without A Face (and who recently played the chauffeur in Holy Motors), embodies an equally striking, one-dimensional figure of purity and goodness, with Jacqueline renouncing her inheritance the moment she learns that her father (who’s believed dead) earned his fortune via unscrupulous means.
Like Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Psycho (albeit far more enjoyable), Franju’s Judex is a fascinating experiment rather than a fully satisfying movie in its own right. Unlike, say, Far From Heaven, which riffs on Douglas Sirk’s oeuvre, this film doesn’t quite function as a stand-alone narrative. Without an understanding of its relationship to its predecessor, it’s nearly impossible to parse. According to the essay by Geoffrey O’Brien included in Criterion’s DVD/Blu-ray release, Franju didn’t even want to make Judex—he’d actually sought to film a modern version of Feuillade’s Fantômas, but was prevented from doing so, because the rights were held by somebody else. The Criterion edition also includes two of Franju’s early shorts, 1951’s “Hôtel Des Invalides” and 1952’s “Le Grand Méliès.” The latter will be of particular interest to anyone who enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and wants to learn more about its primary inspiration. But the main attraction is the opportunity to revel in a degree of casual insanity not usually seen in French art films. This mini-Judex may barely be coherent, but its most indelible moments will never be forgotten.