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IN REMARKING a 1914 secret-avenger thriller, Georges Franju has capitalized on our distance from its prewar society. Judex (1963) is designed to lay bare the moral content of people's actions-- of the hero's as much as the villain's. At the same time Franju's treatment makes us marvel at the beauty of those actions, the beauty of everything that happens in this world of the past.
This attitude is that of a child, and in fact Franju constantly shows children looking at the scenes we are watching. From a sequence of a child being entertained with Alice in Wonderland ("Will you--won't you--will you--won't you/ Will you join the dance?"), Franju cuts to a masguerage ball. The measured actions and fantastic costumes of the dancers establish a fairytale quality, into which is integrated strong tension in the relations between figures. Later in the film a child stands staring at the villainess, who is disguised as a nun. Discomfited, she gets up and moves out of his view. In both sequences a child's clear view of good and bad coexists with, and is even diverted by, the marvelous beauty of people and settings.
Judex is designed to let all the characters look at what is going on. Its slow pacing frequently pauses while we and the characters savor the beauty of the world. This quality of leisure gives the film the true feeling of its period, as does the quality of its images: less recorded action than set-pieces, tableaux. Characters are presented behind windowpanes and in portraits, shown as individuals first and only later as figures related to other people. Each character is complex and complete, composed of light and dark.
It is this constant combination of white and black that makes the film so rich and beautiful. The slowness of its pacing, odd for a thriller, allows a great complexity of events within each shot. Instead of making points, imposing judgments by cutting between one action and another, Franju juxtaposes them within the same space, allows them to coexist without making a moral judgement. Refusing to simplify, he implies wilder and wilder combinations of good and evil in single figures and single scenes. The world of 1914 is complex, but also very ordered, within his frames. One feels that one is seeing everything, that this world is morally complete.
In this Franju follows the visual styles of the great early Continental directors (Feuillade, Murneu), who built their dramas by organizing action within long-lasting shots. Opposed to this is the analytic style (Griffith, Hitchcock) which probes the moral conduct of the action by cutting together short shots of different distances (e.g., from long shot of a group of people to a close shot of one reacting). The latter style attempts a rational understanding of people's action, dramatic events, by setting up rational positions in the characters, through which one can penetrate and divide up the action. The former gives one on entire frame and requires that one make sense of it through the juxtapositions that already exist within. No single clear moral judgement is made for one by the director; one must see moral connections between characters oneself. The joy of seeing a film that lets one make one's own moral judgement can hardly be described.
Instead of being rational moral alternatives as in the analytic style, characters assume greater complexity, sometimes taking on the character of psychological archetypes whose power can be for good or evil. In the hands of someone whose sensibility is as acute as Franju's, this style of film can suggest moral facets of characters and events which one hadn't suspected, and create a world whose moral structure is highly ordered. That Franju does not separate this aim from the entrancing beauty of the world he re-creates, is a tribute to the keenest sensibility among living directors.
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