If we have to classify the films of Louis Feuillade — and we don't, because there are no rules in cinema or criticism (love or war) — ...we'd do well to stop deferring to the contemporary marketing that announced them as adventure serials, and start referring to these (un-/)determinedly recursive five-plus-hour sagas by what they really are, which are extended psychodramas — dangerous, occult, quasi-cathartic manipulations of the spectating psyche. If this, in turn, seems loftily neglectful of the pictures' "point of intention" as mass-audience entertainment, I don't give a damn — a popular audience is in no jeopardy in 2008 of a shortage of delightful diversion, Dalí'ing as it does off of every surface, fixed or mobile — so I strike to reclaim him definitively for high-art, and if the popular audience wants Feuillade (which they don't), they know where to find him. So come on, programmers in the cities that still have cinemas, and cease screening him with musical accompaniment (after all, who does MoMA really need to compromise for?), unless the score will be the relentless throb of the tom-drum or a single long low electronic tone.
Judex [1916-1917] comes off at first viewing as the Feuillade film that is maybe least inclined toward the explicitly ritualistic gestures of the earlier Fantômas [1913-1914] and Les Vampires [The Vampires, 1915-1916] — I'm talking about the nested resurrections, mimic of coffin-rest, and rooftop "somnamubatics" — but the vestigial elements of the psychodrama still remain, by way of the following core, initiative themes: (1) "money"; (2) "family"; (3) "power". Less rooted in the foundational material, but at overt play as dynamic counterpoint (conflictual, read as: "dramatic/dramaturgic") within and against the surface treatment of the story itself, these same three elements configure elsewhere in the cinema what some call "melodrama". At the flick of a whim I might illumine Judex as Feuillade's Godfather 2, but really, I think the relative straightforwardness of the story, built around the aforementioned three themes, represents a schematic laying-bare of the Feuilladean mechanic: it's the return to the pier of departure, before the artist or the spectator (the two become one in the dispositif of Feuilladean spectating) went rightside-down, thrashing for air anywhere in the FEMININE ARMPIT OF THE WAVES (we even see this five hours in to Judex, with Cocantin's swimming-champion beauty, herself grinningly buoyant), or went sidewalk-ward, dangling but gazing — nowhere else to look — at the stars from the FEMININE LIP OF THE EAVES.
Behold supreme Musidora, the greatest female presence of the silent cinema beside Louise Brooks, Sybille Schmitz, and Betty Amann, — here incarnated as Irma Vep's flash-parallel, and named "Diana Monti" (name all vertiginous ascent, and counterattack to Judex's calculating mother's — all mothers in the cinema are calculating — Corsican heritage) — her bathing-suited body, too, one with the waters (but pas de secours)... the body of a real woman (she's Italian) who would just as soon be hit by a jalopy as go to a gym, or whatever housed those 19th-century contraptions with the handsaw-handles and seven-foot springs. Nowadays, if I were to film a Musidora in a bathing-suit (but who is a Musidora?), some blogger would comment upon the "provocation" of it all, and in their refusal to keep their (metaphorical) mouths shut, disrupt the order of actual things, derange the center of power ( /gravitas) located in that body and its silence.
Feuillade's film, in a different way, decenters "the order of actual things," by presenting situations which will be taken for the ordinary, for the banal (the uncomplicated) — the aforementioned three motivational themes — by viewers unhappy to work-out ordinary, banal sensibilities; let the rest perceive chastity, propriety, and piety transformed here into wild grotesquerie.
--The mother (already mentioned) who forces her offspring to vow murder upon the man who tangentially drove her husband to suicide so many years ago over "money worries"; in effect, obviously, forcing her offspring into the proxy role of committing a classical (/ classically delayed) "crime of passion" and so assuming the position of twin incests in a very modern ménage à trois avec maman. (Every shot of Feuillade is, by the way, an affirmation of the modern, an act of solidarity with its eminence.)
--Jacqueline Favraux's delicate little girl of a boy, Jean, who engages in a (reciprocated!) proto-sexual gay relationship with the character played by Bout de Zan and named "le môme Réglisse" ("The Licorice Kid") — a name which, given the context, retains enough of a charge, but induces a full-voltage jolt when we stare harder into it and perceive its appropriation of "église" ("church"), and its corruption of "la religieuse" ("the religious / nun / reverent"). When we watch Jean and le môme Réglisse, lovers, praying in sweet devotion at Jean's widowed mother's side, and recall the same vows taken by the two brothers Tremeuse at the deathbed of their suicided father years earlier, we comprehend that Feuillade and co-conspirator Arthur Bernède have devised a blasphemy on a level with the title of the first story in Joyce's then-contemporary (1914) Dubliners — that is, "The Sisters".
--Judex who is a caped sadist, inculcated by, habillée like, Mother.
With regard to superheroes, their 'true' identity — who they really are — is 'the superhero'. The normal 'true identity' is the lie. See here: Judex switches to the disguise of the 'real he' to win Jacqueline's love, if he as Judex cannot, and if he in the disguise of the old man Vallières can only win her admiration. (What other missions have occasioned the taking-on of this "Judex" alter-ego [ / ego]? Possibly — probably — none.)
This same logic applies to artists: it is why artists become artists — to ascend to 'superhero'-esque new-identity (which is of course only themselves) in order to win a love. That's all.
"Gradiva (C'est Gradiva qui vous appelle) [Gradiva (It's Gradiva Who's Calling You), Alain Robbe-Grillet, 2006] did little for French critics. Commenting on the film's whipped bottoms, pinched nipples, caged women, chained bed slaves and other S&M behaviour, Pascal Mérigeau wrote in Le Nouvel Observateur: 'When the pretty bed slave turns on her belly and shows her buttocks at the camera, the Englishman with toothache lifts his eyes to the sky and looks at the moon. That's what we, for 118 minutes, would have liked to have been able to do.'
'The critics have become philistines,' fumes Robbe-Grillet, 85, bearded and slippered on the sofa of his fourth-floor apartment near the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. 'They used to know about cinema, but their sensibilities have been ruined by television.' I suggest the French public went to see Gradiva in negligible numbers because it came out in Paris as Spider-Man 3 was dominating the French box office. 'We're not going to talk about Spider-Man 3,' he says."
— from "French Force" by Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, September 15, 2007.