“Judex” was one of several silent movie serials made by director Louis Feuillade, and it left a major impression on one of the many French childen who went to the cinema in the 1910s. That child was Georges Franju, who would later go on to make the classic chiller “Eyes Without a Face.” After “Eyes,” he decided to make his own “Judex.”
I haven’t seen the 1915 original, but I can’t imagine it is anything like Franju’s fever-dream “Judex,” released this week in a two-disc Criterion Collection edition. Franju has crammed all the plot points of a 12-part, five-and-a-half-hour serial into a 90-minute film, a cavalcade of heroes, villains, double-crosses, kidnappings, and acts of derring-do. They pile on top of each other, the way an adult might remember a favorite film he saw as a child, the bloat excised, the favorite scenes heightened to almost surreal levels.
Judex is a black-hated, debonair avenger (Channing Pollock, with an almost Roger Moore-esque level of unrealistic handsomeness), who sets his sights on an evil banker, Favraux, Michel Vitold. (How evil? We see Favraux run down an old man in the middle of the road, apparently for kicks.) In one of many masterfully bizarre touches, Judex infiltrates a masquerade ball at Favraux’s house — while the wealthy guests have highly stylized masks, Judex wears a frighteningly realistic bird’s mask, the effect even weirder when Judex does a magic trick with a live dove.
Judex kidnaps Favraux and throws him in the dungeon, which sets off a complicated series of reversals, involving the two antagonists but also their lieutenants; Favraux’s duplicitous servant Diana (Francine Berge) and a governess who moonlights as a cat burglar (Edith Scob).
But it’s probably too easy to fall into plot descriptions when wriiting about “Judex,” there’s just so much of it. What’s important isn’t what happens, but the poetry in the way it happens, as Franju uses near-silent scenes punctuated with sudden, sharp violence. As much as he wants us to be interested in why Judex and two confederates are breaking into a castle, he wants to linger even more on the elegance of their three black-clad bodies, scaling the stone wall bit by bit. In another scene, a man climbing the outside of an apartment building carrying a pigeon cage falls to his death, and the pigeon flies out of the cage, free against the Paris sky.
“Judex” is made by a filmmaker in love with silent movies, especially the look of them, and Franju’s “Judex” uses the old plot as a frame for Franju to lovingly hang his devotion on.