Thursday, April 28, 2011

Alphaville (1965, Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution)

Alphaville starts out well enough; the main character Lemmy Caution checks into a hotel in Alphaville and the concierge takes off her clothes and offers to sleep with him in a monotone voice.  It seemed like an interesting look at a future torn apart by electronics, machinery, money, and war, the usual themes in Jean-Luc Godard’s work (at least those are the ones I can pick up on).  But Godard is not a simple filmmaker, he cannot tell a film simply.  He adds all these irreverent, pretentious moments, often in fumbled cutaways; he distorts his soundtrack, at one point cutting out during the dialogue, complete silence for several seconds, and then returns with a voiceover.  This is not for me.  Long before the end of the film I was lost; I don’t want to make myself seem stupid.  I simply couldn’t follow moment to moment.  The dialogue, stilted and detached, a Godard trademark, did not make sense sentence to sentence, and often word to word.

I’ve had a strange relationship with Godard’s films.  Breathless was the first I saw and it bored me.  My next few Godard films fared no better and I was convinced he was a dated, overrated filmmaker.  Now having seen the scope of his work I no longer hold the same belief and have come to this conclusion: Jean-Luc Godard was the most experimental French New Wave director and always ran the risk of failing.  He experimented with structure, genre, casting, and was interested in movie art rather than entertainment, though his successful pictures are extremely enjoyable.  50 years after Breathless, Godard is still revered as one of history’s most important auteurs, even if in his more recent years the director has struggled to make an engaging film.  The first period of his career, Breathless through Weekend, was a highly productive time, and where all of his masterpieces reside.  Alphaville simply isn’t one of them.

As far as I could understand, Alphaville is a galaxy or a planet in a galaxy that is controlled by Alpha 60, a supercomputer that has put an end to individual thought and freedom, imagination, art, and religion.  The people who live there have numerical tattoos, probably for no other reason than the Nazis did that to their victims and Godard is drawing the parallel there.  Every cliché one can think of is present in the film, including the love conquers all ending that seems to me to be the only moment of achieved satire.  Alpha 60’s computerized voiceover is omnipresent in the film; it pops up over conversations, to provide exposition, or to offer aloof insights into humanity as Godard sees it.  In fact, when once his films may have had social relevance, his work has not aged well.  Take for example his section of the anthology film Love and Anger, where two sets of characters have long dialogues that cut back and forth between couples to the point where their personalities mix and they become one another.  That film is so obviously a criticism on the Vietnam War, and when watching Alphaville I could not help think of that film.  I don’t know what Godard is attacking here though.  He takes jabs at America and capitalism which personally I found offensive because they are antiquated and biased.

Behind it all though, I can’t help but think that Godard is laughing at all his critics, offering a simple ‘fuck you; I suckered you into my world’.  He may have succeeded but I would have liked a better film to manipulate me this way.

The simple fact is that Godard never learned how to make movies.  He may have had great ambition and indeed made a few masterpieces (Vivre sa vie and Contempt), but his work is uneven.  Godard seems too to have developed an ego, understandable since his debut feature is often considered one of the three most influential films in cinema history along with Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane.  He had the clout to make his films in this way because no matter what, movie-going snobs of the 60s would rush to his films simply to brag that they’ve seen them.

Despite the fact that I did not for an instant enjoy this film, the fact is I hated nearly every minute of it, I could not help notice how many science-fiction films it did influence.  Kubrick’s 2001 is the most obvious with Hal undoubtedly taking a cue from Alpha 60.  Alphaville even mentions that Alpha 60 is the continuation of corporations like IBM, and every letter in “Hal” is just one removed from that real life company.  It is reminiscent of Blade Runner in its noir elements including a detective-like figure trying to kill a robot, or in this case the inventor of one.  Plus all the citizens of Alphaville come off as robots; something I consciously thought was going to be revealed at the climax.  Even François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 was influenced by Aplhaville in its similarly bleak future with disconnected humans who resort to bizarre physical moments in public.  Godard in turn must have been influenced by other films; to me he seems to have been influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  Lang co-starred in Contempt and while Metropolis thematically, artistically, and ambitiously shares nothing with Godard’s sci-fi flick, this parallel seems appropriate.

There were elements I enjoyed in the movie.  First was the music, which kicks in right away in homage to Hollywood noirs.  I always enjoy Anna Karina who is beautiful and unfortunately wasted in this lengthy role.  She has been much better elsewhere.  Perhaps with a better leading man than Eddie Constantine, who fumbles through the infrequent action scenes, the film might have come across as more authentic.  I can’t help think of Belmondo who played a similar character in Breathless and was innocently sexy and charismatic.  The lack of imposing hero is a noir staple so I may be overly critical here.  I just didn’t like this movie.

Alphaville (1965)
(a.k.a. Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Jean-Luc Godard
Stars: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina and Akim Tamiroff
In French
Runtime: 99 minutes

IMDB link:

Purchase Alphaville on Criterion DVD at Amazon, or stream now via Amazon Instant Video, and check out books on the film and Jean-Luc Godard in the links below:

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