Thursday, April 23, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Alphaville (1965)

Alphaville (1965) 
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Eddie Constantine (Lemmy Caution), Anna Karina (Natacha von Braun), Akim Tamiroff (Henri Dickson), Howard Vernon (Prof. Leonard Nosferatu - aka von Braun).
I have never been one to question a director artistic ambitions – I want great filmmakers to follow whatever path they want to, and make whatever films they want to make – and in that regard few filmmakers in history have had the freedom that Jean-Luc Godard has had. For 60 years now, Godard has made pretty much whatever he wanted – a function, yes, that his movies have never cost a lot to make, but few Avant Garde filmmakers – and Godard has been one for decades now – get the attention that Godard does. I am both frustrated and fascinated by much of his later work – love the experimentation with 3-D in Goodbye to Language 3-D, grow weary and bored by the endless droning (often un-subtitled) of Film Socialisme for example. Still, that Godard is a genius is undeniable (that he’s an asshole, also undeniable – as Agnes Varda reminded us in Faces Places) – and the film world is richer because Godard has been able to follow his muse for decades. Still, when I watch a film like Alphaville (1965) – I imagine a different cinematic landscape – one in which Godard was able to continue to merge his philosophical interests and his cinephilia into something more, well, relatable. Alphaville shows Godard’s encyclopedic knowledge of film history at its best. It is part film noir, part sci fi, a parody of both, a film which references many of his favorite filmmakers (the Welles influence is obvious throughout) – and yet is also undeniable the work of Godard. Like much of his 1960s work – which, I’m sorry, is still my favorite period of his by far, Alphaville is wondrously entertaining, thought-provoking and profound. It’s a mixture few have ever come close to getting as perfect as Godard did during this decade.
In Alphaville, Eddie Constantine stars as Lemmy Caution, a kind of Sam Spade knock-off who Constantine had played in numerous French films leading up to Alphaville – and would continue to play in various forms for the rest of his life. Lemmy is an American living in France, and his latest job is to infiltrate Alphaville – a kind of “utopia” in which all of the inhabitants are ruled by a computer voice, emotions have pretty much been outlawed, and the consequences for crossing the computer are severe. Lemmy goes undercover as a reporter – apparently writing yet another puff piece about the city – but that’s not his real intention. Him being there throws everything off-kilter – especially when he falls in love with Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina) – which is something that the computer – Alpha 60 – just cannot compute.
Alphaville is a science fiction film, but one made with little money. Godard smartly doesn’t try to make anything look futuristic at all – he confines Lemmy and everyone else mainly indoors – in hotel rooms, hallways, etc. that look impersonal and unfeeling. Godard’s world of the future is, shockingly, still relevant today – it isn’t the path we went down, but it’s not so far away from it that is unrecognizable – and what the reliance on computers has done to humanity is accurate. Godard is able to find ways to make this supposed utopia the exact opposite – without using much in the way of budget. Residents of the city have three choices – assimilate, kill themselves, or face execution – the last of which is done in a way that would be highly inefficient in practice, but is sure as hell entertaining.
With Alphaville, as with other Godard films, you can complain that the film crosses the line into misogyny – and not be entirely off-base. Most of the women in the film are so called “Seductresses” – dead-eyed women, used to control men. If they aren’t that, then they are quite literally man-eating monsters. Even Karina’s Natasha isn’t entirely immune to this treatment – although she certainly becomes more of a character than anyone else.
Of course, as with almost any Godard film there is a lot of philosophical talk. Unlike his more recent efforts though, Godard is at least attempting to merge it into some kind of narrative here – it comes flying at you fast and furious at times, and you may or may not keep up – but hopefully enough sinks in to be useful to you.
Alphaville is Godard at the height of his powers – you can already feel him moving away from his earlier work, and into his later period – but the balance here is just about perfect. It is as heady as anything Godard would ever make – but also entertaining, and brilliantly structured. This is Godard at his absolute best.

1 comment:

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