The project to remake Louis Feuillade's serial Judex was not one that Georges Franju joined with enthusiasm. He told Feuillade's grandson that he would prefer to approach Fantomas, admiring the villain of that piece more than the dark avenging hero of Judex. This distate for the original means that the completed Franju film contains a much more simple plot but the same serial cliffhanger approach to the story as the original, yet what makes it a joy are the moments when the original source ceases to matter and the director pursues his own ideas and sequences.
Set at the beginning of the 20th century like the original serial, Judex opens by showing the villainy of Favraux the banker and making the acquaintance of his household. His pure and gracious daughter, his wily and cunning Governess, and his faithful right hand man, Vallieres, are all introduced as the story follows Judex's threats to visit justice on the old swindler. Magic tricks, nefarious goings on, unlikely family re-unions and an acrobatic finale are tightly delivered in the running time of just over an hour and a half.
Franju's handling of the film is based on emphasising the poetic and the visual. Judex is introduced at a masque ball wearing a bird mask, producing doves and being the centre of the entertainment - he is so magical that Favraux seems struck down by his very presence. The story largely navigates the two central female roles with Favraux's virginal and good daughter as a symbol of light, blond and dressed in white, and the evil governess as worldly, sexy and bad as a symbol of darkness. Judex eventually becomes a guardian angel and forsakes his need for revenge by the film's conclusion, and by doing so he moves from being the all black avenger to the lighter dressed lover.
The director enjoys the opportunity to use the symbols of masks and the natural world which had been the hallmarks of his earlier works. Doves appear to signify innocence under attack, dogs seem to be guardians of the good, and Judex's helpers are faceless agents of his will, all dressed in black with not a line of dialogue between them. All of the main characters have identities that change and even the true and pure daughter eventually is allowed to let her hair down from its virginal bunch. Poetry of image and an abundance of archetypes overpower a truncated, when compared to the original 1916 series, story and the film loses its logical grounding in the search for meaning.
And I suppose Franju's approach can annoy those wanting clear homage to the very plotted and narrative bound original, whilst delighting those who enjoy his ability to raise a story above a simple moral to greater meaning and richness. For the latter group of viewers, the loose relationship to the narrative in Judex can make the experience rather bewitching as the coincidences and unlikely events of the original story are divorced from their rationales, and left as more like mystical accidents. What was originally a potboiler story building towards episodic climaxes becomes a passage of truth where good overcomes the evil around it, and the judge of the title becomes redeemed by virtue himself.
Nuits Rouges was made alongside a TV series using the same characters and is a thinly veiled homage to Fantomas. Made in colour and ten years after Judex, the film is again a collaboration between Champreux and Franju and the debt this piece owes to Louis Feuillade seems more evident than in the earlier film. Where the first film seemed to discard its interest in the central character and emphasised the poetic possibilities of the story over the multiple climaxes of a serial, this later movie is more of the genre and more interested in sustained entertainment than unfettered artistic expression.
The story has a wide and enthralling sweep that mixes up a criminal underworld, amateur sleuths, fanciful gadgets, international locations and the legend of the Knights Templar. The milieu is modern, for 1972, and the tale allows for Champreux to play the master crook and expert in disguise, the man without a face - a gentle nod to Franju's brilliant Les Yeux Sans Visage. The action is much more amoral in tone than the first film, with the ostensible villain and his cat suited accomplice, played by Gayle Hunnicutt, almost admired for their audacity and ruthlessness alongside a bumbling police force led by Gert Fröbe in similar, if less competent, guise to his part in the Mabuse sequels. The film provides chases, traps and surprises, and scenes which reference Les Vampires and Fantomas.
The best moments are the most tense and the most absurd. The criminal on the trail of Templars treasure uses re-animated corpses as his henchmen and this provides a marvellous sequence where the police and Seraphim are hunted down by what looks like waxwork dummies in raincoats. The small sequences with the Knights also are left spooky and rather oblique as all remain anonymous under their helmets, and there is one wonderful elongated cat burgling sequence with Hunnicutt chased over the rooftops. Seraphim and the inspector are fools, and elaborate changes of identity are served up for the viewer to swallow. Nuits Rouges is both fantastical and a little surreal.
Whilst not as iconic or formally beautiful as the Judex adaptation, Nuits Rouges is more broadly enjoyable. It is a romp through set-pieces, which whilst deploying the directors eye for symbols of disguise and corruption, is less earnest and metaphorical but delivers episodic fun competently and intelligently. As a crime serial it works elegantly, but the earlier film is undoubtedly superior in terms of depth of subject matter and audacity with image. Together these two films make a wonderful set which will allow fans of Franju's earlier work to appreciate his ongoing interests and themes, whilst entertaining fans of Feuillade's work and genre buffs too.
MOC deliver another fine treatment for both films which is probably stronger in visual rather than audio quality. the materials on the discs seem to be the same as the French 2 set release from last year. Both films are presented at 1.66:1 with the later film shown non-anamorphically. Both transfers are progressive and possess truly special handling of shade and light, with admirable detail and sharpness. The monochrome print has more signs of damage, and the audio finishes a few seconds before the end of the film. The colour print is very strong with the transfer showing mild edge enhancement and there are odd specks visible from the wear and tear of the source, along with often plentiful grain.
The audio tracks are less impressive with the older film suffering from a number of clicks, pops and background noise and the newer film having more minor hiss in some sequences. The two mono tracks are relatively clean and well defined and supported by removable subs with good translation of the French tracks into English.
On each region free disc comes an interview with Jacques Champraux who co-wrote both films, starred as the man with no face, and was the grandson of Louis Feuillade. He explains Franju's additions to the first film such as the masks, the doves and the dogs and the director's desire to actually cover Fantomas. It was this project that they hoped to get made before the second film when they discovered that the remake rights were too costly. They eventually decided to make the second film and a TV series in Belgrade from Champraux's idea of the man without a face, and he describes the project as a gentle parody of his grandfather's work.
In addition to the disc comes a meaty booklet featuring interviews with Franju and his thoughts on both films, along with appreciations of Judex from Jacques Rivette, Georges Sadoul, Claude Mauriac and Freddy Buache. Franju's musings are very focused on the poetic and he is very open about his distaste for the character of Judex - a "vampire". Film and poster art are included as well and details about the transfer explain that the later film was taken from a non-anamorphic source. This is an excellent booklet covering nearly 50 pages.
MOC numbers 49 and 50 keep up the excellent standards we are used to from this excellent line of DVDs. The two films here will interest those, like myself, who are already in love with the director's other works, as well as those who appreciated the recent Feuillade releases on this side of the pond.
Last updated: 13/07/2018 07:08:40