What’s the biggest genre of film this decade, or even the century? I won’t bother to look, because I’m pretty sure I know the answer, and that answer is the superhero film. The genre has grown into an industry of its own with cinematic universes, constant hype and big box office returns. The superhero genre has also invaded the television space, with serialized efforts such as Arrow and The Flash among the most popular and successful shows around. Prolific silent filmmaker Louis Feuillade would have fit right in with today.
Feuillade is believed to have made (I say believed because who knows how many prints were lost to history) over 700 films in his career. One of these works is a 300-minute silent serial by the name of Judex. The title character Judex (René Cresté) is a caped crusader that enacts revenge on a corrupt banker, Favraux (Louis Leubas), and in the process falls for his daugher Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) while battling evil Diana Monti (Musidora) and her criminal gang with the help of dimwitted private detective Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque). Feuillade’s work in Judex is only a year away from being a century old, yet it seems in tune with today’s pop culture. Superhero movies have become a hype-machine that is too big too fail, and mini-series formats of storytelling have experienced a sort of renaissance with HBO’s True Detective and FX’s Fargo.
I heard about this silent serial, along with the Georges Franju 1963 remake, and was intrigued by both. So, I picked up a copy of Feuillade’s 12-part Flicker Alley release, and the Criterion release of the Franju film. To be upfront, there’s no use in debating which film is better, as that would be a disservice to both works. But it’s worth noting, however, that 97 minutes is significantly less of an endurance test than 300 minutes. The following is what I learned from a combined six and half hours of Judex, and that is that each, in their own way, informed the cinematic language of the caped crusader.
To follow the labyrinth of a plot that Feuillade constructs demands full attention today, so I can only imagine how audiences kept up with it 100 years ago. Characters are constantly being thrown at you from the start, so it’s naturally difficult to keep track of them all. The first episode, a 36-minute prologue, is just that — a prologue — but it’s packed to the brim with crucial information. Even though this is a five-hour effort, not a minute feels wasted. To cut out any scene would cause the high-rise of a plot to collapse, each scene crucial to the overall story. From then on, Feuillade constantly shifts the ground underneath the audience. Character motivations and allegiances are always subject to change, and each character receives an arc worthy of their own film.
Franju’s film is one of great admiration and reverence to Feuillade’s work, as he came from a generation of filmmakers that were still heavily influenced by silent filmmaking and the simple narrative power of the image. There are various nods to Feuillade’s original version, as title cards jump the gap between periods of time, and one character reads aloud a novelization of Feuillade’s Fantomas. What Franju does besides managing the tricky situation of condensing a 300-minute work into a streamlined 97-minute effort (without losing care and complexity) is essentially heighten the material with his own bizarre, cinematic tendencies. He advances the cinematic language of the caped crusader by using the technology and camera wizardry that wasn’t available to Feuillade.
The sort of romanticism that became a defining characteristic in the modern superhero film originates here. Stereotypes are born with the caped crusader (Judex), the damsel in distress (Jacqueline), the femme fatale (Diana Monti) and the dimwit ally (Cocantin). Yes, these character types existed since the dawn of storytelling, but here they began to find their cinematic identity. Franju would heighten these stereotypes in his framing, most significantly in his introduction of Jacqueline as the camera pushes through a window to her on the outside. Through the blurry window she appears dreamlike, and outside of the blurriness, reality vindicates that presentation.
Judex isn’t even seen on screen in Feuillade’s tale until halfway through Episode 1, “The Mysterious Shadow” (technically the second in the chronology), as he enters the frame in an instantly iconic black hat and cloak. He’s been in the shadows up until that point — only spoken of and referenced — and his appearance further heightens his mystique. Feuillade gives him packs of dogs as a sort of loyal soldier. Shots of Judex riding heroically on a horse or striding gallantly toward the camera are the inceptions of heroic imagery in cinema. It’s the simple heroic image that informs the audience who they are rooting for. Franju heightens this, particularly as the camera dollies up to reveal Judex at the beginning of a masquerade ball. Starting at his feet and revealing a majestic eagle’s head on top, Franju lets you know this is your hero without telling you.
Feuillade uses cinematic techniques such as cross-cutting and backtracking the plot for reveals; techniques that were just beginning to be felt out, to great effect. Christopher Nolan would use these same techniques repeatedly in his Dark Knight trilogy, cutting between several characters and actions to build to a crescendo where both the characters and the audience come to a realization at the same time. It’s effective cinema, and it began with Judex. Franju would utilize these techniques almost out of necessity, as he condensed the five-hour plot down to 97 minutes.
It seems almost law that all superheroes must have their origin story told on screen, and that all of them must be tragic. Feuillade seems to agree, although he interestingly held off showing Judex’s origins until halfway through the serial. Judex’s father was bankrupted by the corrupt Favraux when he was young, causing his father to commit suicide by shooting himself. Although by coincidence they quickly came into a fortune, his mother made him and his younger brother Roger vow to avenge their father’s death.
More interestingly is how complex a psychology Feuillade indulged in his protagonist back then. He presents Judex thrillingly in image, but more complex and troubling as a man. Primarily in Part 2, “The Atonement”, he is presented as a man who believes he is causing good by enacting evil on Favraux. He writes heroic letters offering his protection to Jacqueline while eternally condemning her father to suffer. Is he right, or is he wrong? Or is it both? Does this not sound like Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman in his Dark Knight trilogy? The moral conundrums of right and wrong in vigilantism that Christopher Nolan would spend three films investigating were being thoroughly investigated by Feuillade back then as well. This disillusionment of Judex’s dichotomy begins to weigh on him to the point where in Part 7, “The Woman in Black”, he asks his mother to release him from the vow, as the the line between justice and revenge has become blurred by the torture he inflicts on Favraux.
His quest doesn’t just consume him, it eats away at all involved to some capacity. Lovable private detective Cocantin goes from a self-professed pacifist to someone who is horrified with himself after killing bad guys in a shootout. He blames himself, but Feuillade and the audience know that Judex has put him in this position. Favraux loses his mind for much of the serial, and Jacqueline is in borderline terror with her father’s captor trying to woo her. Nolan’s Batman films at their best showed this effect, notably in The Dark Knight when Lucious momentarily compromises his morals to fascism in order to help Batman find the Joker. He gets his redemption when he shuts down the technology, but Feuillade didn’t afford the same for Cocantin.
It’s impressive nowadays when a tale of heroics steeps itself in such murky morality, so the fact that Feuillade was onto this a century ago only speaks of his skill as a storyteller. Franju follows in his footsteps, even taking some things a step further such as having Favraux kill himself at the end, but he then curiously shows Judex and Jacqueline in romantic bliss on a beach, just after the latter’s father committed suicide because of what Judex had done to him.
The superhero genre likely, and somewhat unfortunately, won’t die anytime soon. Yet through viewing both Feuillade’s and Franju’s interpretations of the same story, one discovers that the cinematic language of the superhero has always been evolving, and that much of what they did to convey that is not only still effective today, but is still used by modern filmmakers.
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.