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Birdshead Revisited: Judex (1963)

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The first time we see the magician, he is standing alone, legs spread slightly apart, a lifelike bird mask covering his head. Next to him, on a stone block, lies a lifeless white dove. He picks it up in one hand and holds it gently as he walks through the hallways of the mansion on his way to the ballroom where the gala is being held. Once there, among the other masked revelers, the dove comes to life and flies away. He has brought it back from the dead, or so it seems, and produces one after another to the delight of the guests. The  man in the mask, we suspect, is Judex, an avenger who has set out to get a rich banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), to pay back his victims or else. The actual magician portraying Judex is Channing Pollock and he didn’t speak a word of French. That didn’t matter to director Georges Franju, he just wanted a look. Besides, Judex wasn’t the lead anyway.

Georges Franju’s 1963 caper classic, Judex(streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck), is an odd bird of a movie, combining silent era title cards and cinematic styles of the 1920s (many scenes are quick vignettes and irises are used throughout) with mod 1960s hairstyles and futuristic, inexplicable technologies. Judex’s lair is filled with things like live closed circuit tv and devices that project one’s writing into the air over a cell. Doors and walls open and close with a whirring mechanical sound more at home on Star Trek than any story taking place in the 1920s. But it’s that inexplicable fantasy setting that makes the movie work. That and the fact that Franju wisely chose to make Judex a minor character in his own movie. Francine Berge, as Diana, the ruthlessly upwardly mobile nanny who’s willing to kill anyone who stands between her and other people’s money, is far more interesting. Diana has been playing a coy, hard to get angle with her employer, Favraux, who is in love with her, and will be damned if she’ll let Judex come along and ruin it just because he wants justice for the common man. Here’s how the story unfolds.

We meet Favraux as he reads a letter from Judex, outlining the threat that the banker must pay back his victims or die by midnight the following evening. The banker’s daughter, Jacqueline (Edith Scob), has her own daughter who is cared for by Diana. Favraux fawns over Diana and pleads with her to marry him but she refuses. He’s too rich and owns too many things for such a simple girl as she. Of course, that’s precisely what she wants but the more she pretends not to want it, the more convinced Favraux will be that she truly loves him and, she hopes, give her all his money. Then Judex shows up and ruins everything by kidnapping Favraux, after faking Favraux’s death, leading Diana to opt for plan B which is, essentially, kidnap and/or kill Jacqueline until someone can get her the money she wants so desperately. Along for the ride is a detective, Cocantin (Jacques Jouanneau), who is remarkably bad at detecting anything.

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Franju made Judex as an homage to the serials of the 1910s and 1920s adapted from the Judex stories as well as Fantômas, one of whose stories Cocantin just happens to be reading. Indeed, the film opens with title cards directly mimicking the title card credits of many a silent film and several scenes quietly iris in and out in mere seconds, after only a quick, and usually visual, piece of information is revealed.  The music, by master of the form Maurice Jarre, beautifully evokes the music of the time.  That, however, is where the period detail ends.

As stated above, Judex’s lair is filled with wonderful devices like stone walls that open with an electronic whir whenever someone waves a hand over them and, of course, he has cameras that monitor every action in the prisoner cell. Then come the styles. Judex himself has sideburns and a pompadour while Diana and Jacqueline sport the latest women’s hairstyles from 1963. Diana also has an apparently endless supply of black spandex and costumes while her boyfriend, Morales (Theo Sarapo), looks like he could fit in with the cast of West Side Story (1961) without missing a beat.

Franju gathered up his actors from disparate backgrounds. Francine Berge was selected because Franju saw her in a movie and thought she looked evil. Edith Scob had just had her greatest success with Franju, and he with her, in their classic horror film, Eyes Without a Face (1960), and Channing Pollock was a famous American magician cast solely for the look he would bring to the character. Francine Berge said in an interview years later that she felt sorry for Pollock. When the cast and director went out to dinner, all speaking in French, except for Berge who was bilingual, Pollock looked lost. Eventually, he stopped going to the dinners and when his scenes were done, he disappeared from the set entirely.

When the movie was released, critical reaction ranged from confusion over the mix of tones to accepting it for what it was without quite jumping over the moon about it. That reaction is understandable if you’re looking for a movie that rigidly follows every detail of a period and takes itself very seriously but this clearly isn’t that movie. Judex is about homage and fun and highly unbelievable situations. There’s nary a hint of realism to be found from the first frame to the last. In many ways, the mood of the film is summed up perfectly by a minor character at the end who becomes very important to the climax, Daisy (Sylva Koscina). Cocantin sees her in the street and runs to her. They once dated and haven’t seen each other in years. She’s now part of a traveling circus. When they meet again, she gleefully explains to him that her brutal lion tamer uncle who “only wanted the best for me” was eaten by his lions so now she’s free. Then, on a moment’s notice, she scales a building for several stories to free Judex and gets into a rooftop fight with Diana (who wears a black leotard to Daisy’s white leotard). All in a day’s work for Daisy, a character that couldn’t exist anywhere outside the deus ex machina of Judex. And a movie like Judex couldn’t exist without her. It’s not about making sense, it’s about making a fun, frivolous and stylish caper. And that it does, very well indeed.

Greg Ferrara

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