Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Flicker Alley DVD
In 1914, three years before he coined the term “surréalisme,” Guillaume Apollinaire founded the Society of the Friends of Fantômas, enthused as he was by the popular film serial featuring the titular anarchist villain. Henceforth, the films of Louis Feuillade, director of the Fantômas serial, with their unpredictable blend of realism and fantasy, chaos and desire, became a source of inspiration for the early Surrealists.
The maker of some 800 films as the head of Gaumont Studios in the first part of the last century, Feuillade is best remembered for his lurid and innovative crime serials — including Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex — which were as popular with bourgeois filmgoers as they were with avant-garde intellectuals. In her seminal 1973 book of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag offers some insight into this early popularity of Feuillade’s films:
Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realist, therefore facile, of the mimetic arts. In fact,… photography is the only art that is natively surreal… Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic that the one perceiver by natural vision.
If, by extension, we take Sontag’s view of photography to include the cinema, then Feuillade’s films exemplify this seductive “duplicate world.”
The style of Feuillade’s serials is not the surrealism associated with hallucinogens and dorm-room Dalí posters. Rather it is the surrealism of Apollinaire, André Breton, and Louis Aragon — a social, political, and aesthetic movement drawn from the same cultural context in which Feuillade’s films were being made. The apex of Feuillade’s popularity is roughly contemporary with the First World War, and the random violence and unnerving instability found in his films echo the continent’s disorder at the time. Disgusted by this disastrous situation, and by the society that so blithely conscripted them into the middle of it, the Surrealists rejected contemporary civilization, seeking instead an “absolute reality,” a higher truth found beyond or above (as the term “surrealism” suggests) the prevailing, bourgeois notion of reality.
And it is in Feuillade (among other places) that they found this “surreality.” With their dream-like visuals and meandering narrative arcs, their abrupt injections of violence and lust, their continual reaffirmation of the power of shadowy evil forces and of the impotence of the enforcers of the law, his films represent both a critique of the contemporary social order and a whimsical liberation from its oppressive realities. The serials combine the hyper-real and the fantastic, crossing film-sets with location shooting, portraying Paris with an eye for documentary detail, but also with a distance suggestive of mysterious forces at work. Like the work of the Surrealists, they are simultaneously escapist fantasies (in Feuillade’s own words, “a place … of dream and forgetfulness”) and works of social commentary.
As such, Feuillade’s two major serials, Fantômas and Les Vampires, drew the ire of the Paris’ moral authorities. Accused of promoting anarchy and depravity, these two serials were subject to repeated criticism and censorship. And so, in 1917, Feuillade embarked on his third major crime serial, one in which the more radically morbid elements of the previous films (such as the extravagant body-counts) would be reduced in favor of an ostensibly more edifying experience. In Feuillade’s words, it was to be “a family show, exalting the finest sentiments,” and reasserting the triumph of good over evil, not relishing the opposite equation, as in the earlier films.
Judex is indeed a “family show,” a sweeping melodrama of different families and generations, but it is far less innocuous than a cursory comparison to its predecessors suggests. The serial details the revenge exacted upon a greedy capitalist named Favraux by the title character, a mysterious, black-cloaked figure. Judex, the son of a wealthy businessman whom Favraux had swindled and driven to bankruptcy, is bent on avenging his father’s death, but is at the same time troubled by his growing love for Favraux’s daughter, the widow Jacqueline. Even as he fakes Favraux’s death and imprisons him in the dungeon beneath his Chateau Rouge, Judex must protect Jacqueline from the predatory gangs of the criminal underworld (led by the evil Diana Monti, played by Musidora, Les Vampires’ Irma Vep) who seek the banker’s immense fortune for themselves.
In certain obvious respects, this film is quite different from Feuillade’s previous crime serials. Judex displays a markedly more sophisticated sense of pace and continuity than its predecessors, a greater attention to character development and psychology, and of course, its shift in setting from urban Paris to the countryside of central and Southern France. But in its moral affiliation, Feuillade’s film is as radical as his previous work. In all of his films, unseen forces (good or evil) govern the fate of the characters. The previous films portray the lives of the unsuspecting victims as subject to the unpredictable violence of an evil and unstoppable criminal element. In Judex, this underworld still threatens the innocents, but it is the mysterious, invisible avenger himself who is in control, manipulating the fates of the characters from the shadows. And like his heirs Batman and The Shadow, Judex is a morally equivocal figure, alternately sadistic and empathetic. Even as Judex pines for Jacqueline’s love, he subjects her father to a bizarre, voyeuristic form of torture, involving a kind of mirrored electronic eye. Conversely, it is much to Jacqueline’s confusion and dismay that she is repeatedly saved from death by the faceless man she believes has killed her father.
Such is the rocky moral landscape of Feuillade’s “family show” that good and evil lie in the places in which one might least expect them. In the film, this is suggested by the movement of the plot’s action from city to country, from Paris (the origin of crime and depravity) to the peaceful countryside (where families live in unsuspecting quiet) and down to the South of France (Feuillade’s birthplace and the site of the film’s resolution). Here, “the city,” with its strangers and empty streets, is not the threat. It is the banality of the rural spaces that hides the true evil, it is what lies in one’s own home and inside the minds of the people one knows. Unlike in Les Vampires, one is not so much in danger of being randomly poisoned, gassed, or lassoed from one’s balcony; one must instead beware of one’s son or father or governess or boyfriend — they may be swindlers, scoundrels, or criminals, or they may be torturing your father in their personal dungeon.
Reinforcing this sense of imminent danger is Feuillade’s style, which, as in his previous films, relies on a subtle use of tableau compositions. Often these serve to emphasize the theatricality of the film, particularly in the consistent framing of spaces, and the comedian Marcel Lévesque’s mugging to the camera in the film’s comic sequences. But as George Franju (who remade Judexin 1964) notes, in these “shots where nothing happens, something can occur that profits from this nothing, this inaction, this void and silence, something profits precisely from the waiting, form inquietude. This something is called mystery.” Feuillade’s tableaux create a fixed space in which anything can happen (and often does) — a villain can creep up behind an innocent victim as they sit unaware. These compositions are the equivalent of the unsuspecting locales of the film’s plot, quiet country lanes in which unseen menaces lie in wait. Like Jacqueline, the audience is torn from the comfort of their bourgeois lifestyle, tied up, and thrown in the river.
The worldview that Feuillade presents in Judex is thus as disquieting in its unpredictability as that of his earlier, more sensational films. What is perhaps even more radical about the latter serial is direct questioning of bourgeois life, on the very stability of the family itself. In their “Declaration of January 27, 1925,” the suitably clandestine-sounding Bureau de Recherches Surréalistes (Bureau of Surrealist Investigations) echoed Feuillade’s challenge: “We make no claim to change the mores of mankind, but we intend to show the fragility of thought, and on what shifting foundations, what caverns we have built our trembling houses.” For the Surrealists, Feuillade’s work represents an important testing of those foundations and exploration of the caverns beneath them.