I wasn't going to write anything about The Dark Knight Rises. I mean, I loved it. It was kind of perfect. I cried at the end. But no one needs to know that. Besides, I have a son now and the days when I had the time or the inclination to write 5,000 word blog posts about films seem like they belong to a different person.
Then I saw Georges Franju's Judex and the film theorist in me wanted to come out and play.
My dad has a habit of handing me copies of obscure French films with no explanation. Every time he comes over there will be a DVD or two deposited somewhere in my flat with titles I can't pronounce. Which would be great except I've become a bit of a philistine when it comes to foreign-language films recently. I'm not sure why, I just went through a phase of wanting to watch easy stuff with things exploding. And playing Xbox games in which you make things explode. So these obscure French films piled up. Until I had a son and decided to give him some culture.
So I picked up Judex, a 1963 remake of a 1916 serial by Louis Feuillade (who also made Fantômas and Les Vampires - neither of which I've seen, but I have seen Irma Vep, a 1996 film about a filmmaker attempting to remake Les Vampires, which is worth mentioning here because it's awesome). I had no idea what it was about, other than I knew that Georges Franju had directed Eyes Without a Face, one of my favourite horror films.
To summarise the plot (and this blog post), Judex is kind of like Batman. He fights crime, he has a secret idenity and he even has a secret lair. Judex is out to get this evil banker dude, Favraux (because bankers were evil even way back in 1963). We don't really know why Favraux is evil at first, we just see him get these notes from Judex telling him he is. In fact, for the first ten minutes of the film I almost thought Judex was going to be the bad guy as we have no idea who he is or what his motivations are. Then we see Favraux run over an old guy in his car and we realise this Judex bloke is probably onto something.
The first time we see Judex is possibly the most awesome introduction of a character ever. As always I seriously recommend you check out the whole film but if you would like to see the most awesome introduction of a character ever the whole scene is here -
So Judex kidnaps Favraux and initially sentences him to death, but then has a change of heart because he falls for his daughter so he figures life imprisonment will do just as well. Meanwhile there's a Catwoman-type character called Diana Monti who was hoping to steal some valuable documents from Favraux's house but is then spotted by his daughter so makes various attempts to kill her. Judex obviously doesn't like this too much. Hijinks ensue.
There are more kidnappings and dastardly plots and chases and fights. And there is a scene towards the end in which Diana Monti (who is a bit like Catwoman), has tied up Judex (who is a bit like Batman) and confesses that she has a huge crush on him and suggests they run away together. In spite of this I didn't make the connection to The Dark Knight Rises until I watched an interview with Jacques Champreux who co-wrote the film, because it's not the narrative similarities that I'm interested in.
According to Champreux, Franju had a bit of an odd approach to Judex. On the one hand he had been a fan of Louis Feuillade and wanted to make a tribute to the silent adventure serials. At the same time he regarded the original Judex as one of Feuillade's worst and had no real interest in the character. So he made the film his own way. He cut out key elements of exposition and backstory, such as the fact that in the original film Judex is shown as a child witnessing the death of his father at the hands of Favraux and being sworn to seek revenge by his mother. Franju decided we didn't need all that, so he cut it all. And now Judex just turns up dressed as a bird. The film is full of incongruous moments like this and yet it is never difficult to follow and still tells a solid story. Franju just had a lot more faith in his audience than many filmmakers do now.
Franju was also happy to allow symbolism to take precedence over a clear narrative. At one point the detective working with Judex notices a passing circus and asks an acrobat dressed in white to give him a hand. We don't know anything about her, but within moments she becomes one of the main players in the climax of the film and ends up in a fight with Monti who is dressed in black. During this fight Franju focuses on the characters' legs, emphasising the contrast between the colours. A fight scene in which we only see legs is one of those things that will divide an audience. I thought it was awesome.
And then there's the speed of the film, which glides along at a consistent pace without ever ramping up to emphasise the tension or highlight the action. This makes the whole piece feel rather dream-like and not like an adventure film at all.
My point is that Franju made an art film out of a popular adventure series. On the surface there are chases and fights and dastardly plots and all the other elements that make up an adventure story. But the film never feels like an adventure story and as a result compels the viewer to look deeper into the material. This is exactly what Nolan did with Batman.
There were hints of it in Batman Begins but I don't think Nolan really made the material his own until The Dark Knight. The Joker does not belong in a mainstream superhero blockbuster. For a start he does not exist until the moment he appears on screen; he has no backstory. He describes himself as an agent of chaos, but in fact he is chaos itself in human form meaning he isn't really a human character at all and therefore obeys none of the rules we have come to expect from characters in films. He is unpredictable, he has no real character arc, and at the end of the film he wins. This is what makes the film different and interesting, and Nolan took this approach to the next level with The Dark Knight Rises.
There may be spoilers.
Instead of throwing one or two interesting ideas into the mix, Nolan has constructed a whole film around allegory and symbolism. The best example of this is the prison where Bane came from and where he sends Bruce Wayne after his defeat. There is no attempt to even pretend this prison is a real place. As a result the comparisons come easy - it is the Nietzschean abyss, it is Kafka's Penal Colony, it is Foucoult comparing modern society to Bentham's Panopticon; it is pure allegory. And because it is pure allegory it throws the rest of the film into a different light. Gotham no longer feels like a real city and so may as well be every city. Just as it's not clear whether Batman survives at the end or not, it's not even clear whether he makes it out of the prison at all. Then there's the kangaroo court scene, a reference to Fritz Lang's M and another example of the narrative taking a back seat so Nolan can play with images.
Except the narrative never really does take a back seat. That is why Nolan is a genius. If you want The Dark Knight Rises to be nothing more than a film about a man in a daft costume kicking people in the head then all of that is there and it works just fine. But if you want it to be a film about the financial crisis, if you want it to be a film about terrorism, if you want it to be a film about where the Occupy movement would've ended up, if you want it to be a film about a crazy millionaire day-dreaming about the man he could have been, all that is there too. Few filmmakers are able to accomplish that balance successfully and certainly not with a much-loved and well-established franchise, but like Franju before him Nolan has cracked it.
Decades from now it won't matter whether we've had twenty more incarnations of Batman or whether, like Judex, the character himself has become a relic of past popular culture, people will still be talking about The Dark Knight Rises.