Why the fervor over the Criterion Collection?
When DVD technology was new, I read in Movieline and other magazines filmmakers and actors praising the technology and claiming watching DVDs was like taking a film class. DVDs offered extras that most VHS tapes did not. Today the content on DVDs and Blu-rays varies. They might contain supplements, but if they’re made-on-demand, bonus features are likely to be minimal–if they are even included. The Criterion Collection carries on the tradition of educating film fanatics about the movies they love.
The company focuses on world classics and movies otherwise deemed culturally important. It packages home viewing copies in carefully designed cases usually including booklets containing essays written by experts on the films or their subject matters. Aspect ratio police can relax when watching a Criterion disc. When buying one, they will never buy a pan and scan, essentially a new directorial version of the film sacrificing its full screen image by cropping it to fit yesteryear’s square televisions. The distributor standardized the letterbox format for widescreen films on discs.
Sometimes Criterion’s licensing for movies lapses, and it cannot produce new copies for sale. The threat of time limited editions pressures movie lovers to buy discs sooner versus later. Tardy and unlucky cinéastes risk having hunt for them on the used market, where hard-to-get out-of-print editions can be costly.
As of my writing this post, a Google search of the words Criterion Collection yields 9.3 million hits. Most of that content isn’t even produced by the company. Fans share their Criterion hauls across social media. Some make blog posts and podcasts about individual films. Others go even further devoting their entire blogs and podcasts to covering only Criterion’s offerings. This blogathon is another contribution to the cult of Criterion!
In order to best cover Georges Franju‘s Judex (1963) for the Criterion Collection blogathon, I’m reviewing not only the film, but also its packaging and bonus features. I bought the dual-format edition, so all details following below refer to that edition, but a one-disc DVD edition is available.
Packaging & General Contents
The set comes in a sturdy box, squatter than a traditional DVD case, but of the same width and length. While the case is classic Blu-ray size, the plastic is not blue. It is clear, so that it does not detract from the cover artwork. Inside is a thirty-seven page booklet and three discs. One disc is a Blu-ray, and the other two are DVDs.
Packaging Design & Booklet Artwork
Art directors for this set are Sarah Habibi and Eric Skillman. The packaging design is by Skillman, “a Brooklyn-based designer, art director, and writer, best known for his work with The Criterion Collection, where he has been firmly ensconced since 2002.” Ron Wimberly, best known as a comics writer and artist, provides the illustrations, including the cover image. He designed the box art for Criterion’s Zatoichi collection.
Their challenge was to make the package and booklet visually tie into the Judex’s silent film aesthetics. They did a superb job! All design elements are in the color palette of silent film. They’re in whites, blacks, and grays with orange added as the one vivid, popping color. A modernized, meaning streamlined, art nouveau style is found in every design element. Major sections of the booklet are demarcated by intertitle-style boxes with art nouveau framing, and those frames are copies of ones in the movie’s opening credit sequence. Art nouveau embellishments mark essay and interview breaks. Wimberly’s illustrations have a simplified style. His subjects from the film are immediately recognizable, but they’re rendered in a style where the film’s decadent art nouveau aesthetic meets a graphic novel pop art style.
The booklet contains the film’s cast and credits listings, the essay The Secret of Heart of Judex by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien, selected commentary by the director entitled Franju on Judex, information on the transfer, special thanks and acknowledgements, and productions credits. O’Brien’s essay covers a lot of ground, from Louis Feuillade‘s cinematic contributions and rediscovery, to his original Judex (1916), to what both directors have in common, to an evaluation of Franju’s version, and to how a reimagining of Feuillade’s Judex could result in a highly personal film for Franju with a lasting contribution to pop culture. In his commentary, Franju discusses how he actually wanted to remake Fantômas, but was solicited to remake Judex and how he modernized the telling of the tale while attempting to keep the original film’s atmosphere. He reveals how he felt about his main actors and characters. For example, his muse and frequent collaborator Édith Scob gave him déjà vu when he first met her. A diversion into Le grand Méliès connects back to Judex, but before it does some wonderful anecdotes about Jehanne d’Alcy, Méliès second wife and widow, are shared.
According to the booklet, “Judex is presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.66:1.” On my widescreen television, the film’s images filled my screen without any letterboxing, but on standard 4:3 televisions and some widescreen models, you may see black bars to maintain screen format. The new transfer “was recreated in 2k resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative.” During the restoration process, “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed.” The resulting movie I watched has a gorgeous look, clear of signs of aging with the dreamlike silent film aesthetic intact and details in set design, clothing, and actors’ expressions readily studiable.
While this Judex is a near silent in some parts, it has spoken dialogue and a soundtrack by Maurice Jarre, another frequent collaborator with Georges Franju. From the booklet: “The original monoaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm soundtrack negative. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” Again no signs of aging are audible in the movie’s soundtrack. The resulting soundtrack is clear.
Contents of the Three Discs
The single Blu-ray contains the movie, a searchable timeline, film chapters, supplements, and an option to turn off or on English subtitles (The default is on). DVD 1 contains the movie, film chapters, and the option to turn off or on English subtitles. DVD 2 contains the DVD version of all the supplements found on the Blu-ray disc.
The menu screen design of the Blu-ray is quite clever. As you prepare to watch the movie or its extras, you see Judex’s observation screen. Images from the film play within its frame on a loop. The soundtrack has a shorter loop than the images. It features a segment sounding quite sci-fi. You’ll likely not leave on the menu screen too long before the sounds of such a short loop get annoyingly repetitive.
- The first bonus feature is an interview with Francine Bergé, who played Marie Verdier/Diana Monti. The interview was recorded in 2012 for Paris’s La Cinémathèque française. She talks about what it was like working with Franju and the other actors and what a fun time she had on the set. Franju’s main character direction was for her to play her role as “evil.” She relates a sad on the set tale about costar Channing Pollock.
- The second is a 2007 interview with Judex cowriter Jacques Champreux. Franju credited Champreux for removing any aspect resembling movie serials in their retelling. He called Champreux “a habitué of the Boulevard of Crime” and one of “the most creative writers.” Champreux was involved with the project first, and he was the one who solicited Franju to participate. Champreux, also, happened to be the grandson of Louis Feuillade.
- The third supplement is Franju Le Visionnaire. It’s a fifty-minute program consisting of interviews with Franju that spanned twenty-three years. The last was filmed shortly before his death. Clips of his better known films are spliced into the interviews, and works covered include his documentaries, like Le sang des bêtes/Blood of the Beasts, as well as his fiction films, like Les Yeux sans visage/Eyes without a Face. Franju Le Visionnaire was originally broadcast as part of the French television series Cinéma, de notre temps in 1998. The interviews expand on the booklet’s material in Franju on Judex going deeper into his film-making philosophies and techniques and his work on Judex.
- The fourth is short Le grand Méliès (1952). It’s a biographical tribute to early film pioneer Georges Méliès, whose movie career ended around the onset of World War I. Méliès started in magic theatre shows, and after seeing the Lumière brothers privately demonstrate their cinematograph, he knew it could be used for entertainment purposes. Franju’s film starts when elderly Méliès runs a toy store and jumps to the end of his pure theatre career as he segues into his movie career before ending in 1953, past Méliès death. His wife Jehanne d’Alcy plays herself, and Méliès’ son André plays his father. The movie is a creative way of teaching film history while demonstrating early film-making techniques.
- The final extra is Hôtel des Invalides (1951). It features music by Maurice Jarre and cinematography by Marcel Fraedetal, both collaborators on Judex. It’s an antiwar documentary short. Hôtel starts off seeming like a simple cinematic tour of the museum in the former hospital. We follow a young couple visiting the site. The movie ultimately shows the human cost of war. We’re shown the place’s burial site, and we’re shown physically and likely psychologically wounded veterans being celebrated for their service. Hôtel hints war is not over as one of its final shorts contains child soldiers, eager to grow up and serve.
If you have seen Louis Feuillade’s movie serials Judex (1916) and Les Vampires (1915), you’ll get the most enjoyment out of this film. While it functions as an entertainment on its own, including scenes of original, strong imagery, it’s a lot more fun to see the ways in which Georges Franju’s film remains faithful to its source material and when it deviates. Placed throughout the movie are what we now call Easter eggs to Musidora‘s performance as Irma Vep in Les Vampires. Franju was known for mixing documentary style with the dreamlike, and his Judex screens like we’re watching his fever dream that crosses Feuillade’s films and a groovy, sixties crime thriller.
Franju loved how monochromatic silent film made everything beautiful, even the mundane. He was influenced by surrealism, expressionism, documentaries, and the French “tradition of quality.” Aware of his influences, he was driven to pursue his own vision: “I like films that make me dream, but I don’t like anyone to to dream for me.” He discovered Louise Feuillade’s films in 1938. He and Henri Langlois “included some of them in a retrospective program at the Venice Film Festival.” Franju complimented Feuillade saying, his style “does not seem like a style. . .His way of telling the simple or crazy stories that are made still more extraordinary by the familiar natural settings whose reality–the truth–always makes them beautiful.” It’s hard not to read that description and see those elements in Franju’s works.
Franju wanted to remake Fantômas, but its rights were not available, so he consented to work on Judex. He saw Judex, in the name of good, as being as horrible as Fantômas. In Franju’s film, Judex (Channing Pollock) loses his revenge tale. A backstory whose DNA can be found in pop culture creations like Batman is gone. Instead Judex metes out justice against the horrible banker Favraux (Michel Vitold) for no reason. Why did Judex decide to turn vigilante and punish Favraux for his crimes? Has Judex punished anyone else before? Is he letting out a dark side in the name of good? We never find out. Perhaps if Judex whims had turned another way, he’d be a criminal like Fantômas. Perhaps Franju’s Judex’s DNA can be found in television shows like Dexter.
Even though Judex’s targeting of Favraux starts the plot going, he becomes reactionary to the antics of Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), nanny to Favraux’s grandchild under the false name Marie Verdier. Diana has a scheme to marry Favraux, so she can get access to his wealth. Judex seems to kill Favraux at a party, and then Judex secretly kidnaps the comatose Favraux. Diana is the only one bright enough to realize the ruse. We’re never told what motivates her other than greed and jealousy, but Bergé is a better actor than Pollock and has more presence, so she makes the more use of her greater screen time. Her Diana is evil, sexy, and profane. A feat when following Musidora’s performances!
Édith Scob’s Jacqueline Favraux is Diana’s opposite. She’s the good woman whose strong moral character survives despite being the pawn of so many in the story. Her father Favraux had married her off too young to a man old enough to leave her a widow with a young child. Her father plans to marry her off again for his convenience to a penniless man of low morals. After her father’s “death,” his true nature is revealed to her, and she renounces her portion of his fortune, while leaving her child’s in trust for her to decide what to do with it when she comes of age. Jacqueline’s suitor breaks their engagement, and her only remaining friend is family servant Vallieres. Thin Scob conveys a physical fragility later exploited by Diana, and Scob gives Jacqueline’s eyes a haunting, soulful look that replaces her initial sunniness and naiveté.
Judex and Jacqueline stand in Diana’s way. She needs to find Favraux to “save” him so she can marry him. Judex knows where Favraux is, and Jacqueline is the heir who can make trouble for Diana and prevent her marriage. Diana repeatedly attacks Jacqueline, and while Judex doesn’t prevent the attacks, he’s too consumed in punishing her father, he repeatedly saves her. It’s sheer luck that Diana’s efforts don’t kill Jacqueline before Judex’s appearances. Further speaking to his impotency against Diana, it will be another female, Daisy (Sylva Koscina), more robust than Jacqueline, but also a wearer of white, who will prove to be more than Diana’s equal in a rooftop battle.
The film’s setting exists in an alternate reality merging 1914 and 1963. All the cars driven are vintage, and one neat scene features headlights being lit by hand with flame. The characters wear sixties clothing that echoes their characters’ silent film origins. There’s a tribute scene to Les Vampires’ Apache dance sequence. Diana and her boyfriend Morales (Théo Sarapo), are dressed like mod reinterpretations of Irma Vep and her companion. Judex has gadgets and a secret lair like in the silent, but they’re upgraded for the sixties, like Judex’s observation mirror. Phones and decor remain vintage style. As in the original Judex and in Les Vampires, the decor offers much eye candy and design inspiration. My favorite set piece is Favraux’s art nouveau embroidered desk chair.
Franju fills his film with beautiful and surreal and frightening images. A kidnap attempt on Jacqueline is foiled when German shepherds suddenly appear on the grounds. They drive Diana and her henchman away, and one dog rests his paw protectively on Jacqueline. The scene is like something out of a fairy tale. In another scene while dressed as a nun, Diana attacks Jacqueline with a hypodermic needle. It’s done in daylight and in public, and no one notices. Later Diana has drugged Jacqueline dropped into the river, where she floats away. Shots of her in the water evoke Ophelia. Near film’s end, Judex’s men carefully scale the wall of Diana’s hideout. They move slowly up it like insects.
The movie’s standout scene is its masquerade ball. Pollock is best made use of in this sequence. The tall, handsome man stands outside the party. As the camera pans up his tuxedo, he’s revealed to be wearing a hawk’s mask, and its face looks toward the camera, breaking the fourth wall. He turns his attention to what appears to be a dead dove, picks it up, and carries it on his hand into and through the party onto the stage. With a sleight of hand, the dead dove becomes a living one and flies out toward the crowd. A crowd of people wearing bird and insect-like masks. Pollock was a stage illusionist best known for his grace in making doves appear out of nowhere. For a moment, Pollock has something in common with his director. Both skillfully make illusions to entertain.