Georges Franju’s reputation (in the UK at least) is built on just one film – his second feature, the hauntingly beautiful Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960). His early documentaries are rarely seen, as are the films he subsequently made throughout the 60s and 70s. Judex (1963) and Nuits Rouges (1973) – packaged together here – are both homages to Louis Feuillade, the French director of silent serials much loved by Buí±uel and the surrealists. Franju was instrumental in the creation (with Henri Langlois) of the CinémathíÂ¨que Franí§aise where Feuillade was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1940s. Judex is a remake of Feuillade’s 1916 serial and was co-written by his grandson Jacques Champreux.
Judex (Latin for ‘judge’, we are informed) is a masked and cape-wearing avenger who exacts retribution on the wicked capitalist Favraux whilst combating the evil doings of the vamp Diana (Francine Bergé) and her henchmen. Diana was played by Musidora in the original and is almost identical to her Irma Vep character in Feuillade’s greatest achievement, Les Vampires – a knife-wielding cat-suited cat-woman. Judex himself could be another of Feuillade’s characters, the daring thief Fantômas, but despite all the accoutrements of the villain, he is a good guy. He is played by the American magician Channing Pollock who, though a bit stiff as an actor, displays his talent for producing white doves from silk handkerchiefs at every given opportunity.
Franju attempts to recreate the mood of the silent era with slow pacing and expressionist lighting (with great shadows) as well as decorative intertitles and even a few iris shots and a keyhole mask. However, he ignores the quality that made Feuillade’s style so distinctive – his stunning visual compositions. In the original, whole scenes were shot with little editing and a still camera (this was pre-Griffith of course), with the action beautifully framed, often in depth. In Franju’s revisitation, it is replaced with classic continuity editing. Yet, he equals if not betters Feuillade in achieving dreamlike expressionism from (unlike the German silents) real locations, finding the poetic and lyrical in reality much as he did in his documentaries.
The iconography of Feuillade’s world is perfectly captured – most notably in the moonlit rooftop scene where two women in leotards (one black and one white of course) fight to the death. Franju even trumps the original’s surrealist tendencies with the bizarre masked ball at the start of the film, in which all the guests wear creepily realistic bird heads – Judex a hawk and Favraux a vulture. Other moments of startling poetry include the scene in which a drugged Jacqueline (Franju regular and the masked star of Les Yeux sans visage Edith Scob, with her own face this time) is thrown from a bridge and floats down the river before being rescued by children. If Franju’s film has a major flaw it is in trying to cram five hours (12 episodes) of serial plot into a 90-minute movie. The silent era storyline must at times seem rather far-fetched to modern audiences but in such a magical film it almost works.
Perhaps the main difference between the two versions is one of intention. Feuillade is aiming for pulp entertainment and almost accidentally hits poetry whereas Franju sets out to make an enchanting lyrical film, paying little attention to the drama. Nevertheless, there are enough brilliant set pieces and beautiful cinematography to thrill the fans of Les Yeux sans visage.