Clicking and Streaming: 'Judex,' a piece of inscrutable French pulp, and 'Closed Curtain,' the latest from Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker on house arrest


Directed by Georges Franju

Currently streaming via Hulu Plus

Based on the epic Louis Feuillade silent crime serial from 1916, "Judex" is a 1963 reimagining from Georges Franju, best known for the striking slaughterhouse documentary "Blood Of Beasts" and the cult horror classic "Eyes Without A Face." Though it gets off to a slow start, setting up the extortion of a banker, the film plunges into a world of inscrutable, disquieting beauty once it snakes through a costume ball over the shoulder of the titular character (played by Channing Pollock), dressed in a tuxedo and a giant, grotesque bird mask and gripping a dead dove.

Dream logic reigns supreme with Franju reducing the ideas of Feuillade's complex, 300-minute 1916 serial down to just 100 minutes, favoring memorable images over a clear narrative: Judex's assistants, decked in solid black with masks and wide-brimmed hats, creep in and out of scenes, appearing and receding as if they were part of the night itself; Judex's dogs do his bidding with reverence rather than ferocity; Judex communicates with a captive via handwritten light appearing on the roof of his prison. The standout performance is Francine Bergé's con artist/cat burglar who flits, Gene Parmesean-like, through a number of unlikely disguises while sternly radiating so much sex and death that the elliptical-but-quaint reality of Judex bends around her.

Franju's direction evokes the silent era but never apes it. Instead of relying on easy visual references to the silent age and pastiches of the music, he recalls its atmosphere—his characters creeping without music or dialogue through quiet, mysterious scenes rich with the potential of a time before the rules of visual language had been fully established. Far from comforting, Franju's resurrection is challenging, fraught with the imaginative anxieties of its original age rather than bathed in a treacly fondness for it. (Sean McTiernan)

"Closed Curtain"

Directed by Jafar Panahi

Currently available on iTunes

Iranian cinema is in a state of diffuse absentia. Rigid, Kafka-esque censorship laws at home have led cherished filmmakers abroad to tell their tales, with varying levels of success. Abbas Kiarostami is in globe-trotting exile mode, aiming to translate his particular brand of national cinema onto an international landscape, securing modest arthouse distribution and mixed reviews. After a rare Oscar win for Iranian film with "A Separation," Asghar Farhadi relocated to France, and, seemingly, has landed on his feet. Bahman Ghobadi, on the other hand, champion of the regionally abused Kurds, has struggled to find outlets for "Rhino Season," also made in exile with a level of gloom drained of his usual folkloric energy. And Jafar Panahi has lost the freedom of mobility, stuck in house arrest on charges of "propaganda against the regime," smuggling recent efforts to film festivals in defiance of a state ban on his filmmaking.

Panahi is strongest when placing a lens on those struggling at the margins, like the working poor in "Crimson Gold" or women escaping from prison in "The Circle," but understandably feels some discomfort when placing the lens on himself these days, stuck in his own category of dispossessed. 2012's "This is Not a Film" was a video diary documenting life on lockdown and the now-unfilmable blueprints for what would have been his next feature, but climaxes with a prolonged conversation with his trash collector. At first, "Closed Curtain" feels like a fictionalized companion piece to "This is Not a Film." Here, a screenwriter (co-director Kambuzia Partovi) closes himself off at a beachfront villa and attempts to combat writer's block while beset by obstructions both self-imposed and from outside forces. Among the many topics taken on here, Panahi ponders depression, questioning the right and the ability to do much of anything and eventually showing up as his malaise-stricken self, with other characters appearing like flickers of his half-kicking subconscious. The film briefly halts to consider the dog that the screenwriter rescued from execution by the state for being "unclean" according to Islamic law; a midnight reveler escaping a police raid on her beach gathering who barges in on this fortress of solitude; the repairmen contracted to fix windows; a neighbor who brings food; and a woman searching for the lost reveler. Nothing is resolved, but the lingering impression is that there are other people's stories still left for Panahi to tell. (Adam Katzman)

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