June 2, 2014

Godard Marathon: Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville

Something’s not in orbit in the capital of this Galaxy.” – Lemmy Caution

There’s something easily complementary about the sci-fi and noir genres. The stylized dialogue and outfits can fit with the differences in a future civilization. We frequently see corrupt systems in sci-fi, and that allows the detective (or a similar character) to search for clues and uncover the mysteries. The noir world also helps to keep budgets down since it’s dark and confined, even when the ideas are fantastical. A film like Dark City does an excellent job molding those genres into something greater than either formula. Jean-Luc Godard put his own stamp on this hybrid with 1965’s Alphaville, which sends a loner into a restrictive and uncaring environment. Inexplicable events happen to Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) right from the start, but he’s hardly a passive individual. His plans include bringing down the Alpha 60 system that runs everything, but it won’t be easy.

Shot entirely in Paris, Alphaville presents a futuristic land that looks a lot like ‘60s France. Godard spotlights the modernist architecture that was novel at the time and creates an interesting look. Many scenes take place in dank apartments and minimalist hotels, but the spare d├ęcor works. Godard excels when he’s playing around, and there’s a sense that the entire movie is kind of a lark. The score constantly adds a “duh duh duh” cue to moments that don’t seem to deserve it. It’s like we’re experiencing the resolution of a Perry Mason case every five minutes. Godard also employs jump cuts backed by gun shots and seems to enjoy keeping us confused. There’s a voice of a man with serious throat problems that serves as the narrator and also interacts with Lemmy. We eventually discover the voice’s identity, but it’s hard to take it too seriously with such a distinctive vocal delivery.

Eddie Constantine in Alphaville

The opening scene sets the stage for Lemmy’s experiences throughout the movie. He arrives at a hotel and is escorted to his room by an attractive woman. She propositions him for sex, and then a random guy tries to kill him. Lemmy deals with both situations, but then he acts like nothing has happened. Later, he’s attacked by another guy and takes him out in a phone booth. It’s hard not to laugh when watching these moments, and one reason is how serious Eddie Constantine remains throughout the scene. He never lets on that he’s in on the joke, if there is one. It’s interesting to note that Constantine played Lemmy Caution many times in more straightforward detective stories. This character would be very familiar to French audiences, though I expect this version was pretty different.

Lemmy’s love interest is played by Godard’s muse Anna Karina, though she’s more subdued than usual. Natacha von Braun doesn’t understand love because it's been lost from this environment, and she isn’t sure what to make of this outsider. The camera frequently shoots Karina in close-up and explores what makes Natacha tick. I kept expecting her to end up being a clone since she’s so devoid of emotion. She’s the key factor in destroying Alpha 60, and it’s the lessening of her walls that makes the difference. Karina is gorgeous and mysterious, but she’s mostly secondary to the lead gumshoe. Even so, she’s the only woman in the story with any substance. The powers treat women like objects, and everyone but Natacha appears to be a prostitute or something similar. It’s a bleak look at a possible route for our society, which still has issues with male domination.

Anna Karina in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville

The challenge with Alphaville is staying on board with the low-key atmosphere. It’s an interesting take on the sci-fi and noir genres, and the gravelly voice makes the antagonist more than your typical electronic villain. The saving grace is memorable scenes that occur apart from the main story. Lemmy takes a ridiculous elevator ride where hoods knock him from side to side of the frame. We only see him moving back and forth like a tennis ball, and it’s a clever device. Another highlight is the execution chamber, which includes a swimming pool. Subversive guys are brought to the deck, given a moment to speak, and killed with a shotgun. Young women then swim to the victim and take care of the body. The callous look at murder is chilling, but Godard undercuts it with by using such an odd sequence. It’s this offbeat approach that keeps Alphaville afloat when the story drifts into long conversations between man and machine. It’s a slow grind and doesn’t rank among my Godard favorites, but there’s enough to appreciate to please at least fans of the genres.

10 comments:

  1. I completely agree with you on this one! This is a true example of why Godard is such a strong and influential talent. He really made this film intriguing because of all his tricks. So different than anything else in this genre.

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    1. You're right that I can't pinpoint another movie that's quite like Alphaville. I wasn't as engaged as some of Godard's other films, but there's still plenty to enjoy.

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  2. I like Alphaville quite a bit - particularly the way it mixes his playful side with a more rigorous, sorrowful sensibility (some of his films go too far in one direction or the other, I think; Made in USA is one that takes the playfulness too far for me so that it's hard to care about anything happening onscreen). It's a genre pastiche, but also a chilling and rather poignant look at love as a near-abstraction, a romance of which there are only whispers but that's enough for Lemmy and Natasha to cling to. Karina is rather heartbreaking here and it's interesting to note that the film was written and shot around the time of her divorce from Godard. Richard Brody makes a big deal of this in his biography, Everything is Cinema - some feel that he reads too much of the relationship into Godard's movies, but I think it adds another interesting dimension to what we see. And it's all onscreen there anyway - Karina's wavering between blank charm and human feeling, the gorgeous yet simple lighting set-ups and camera moves, the way Godard's depiction of the Parisian present as a disorienting future is both clever and terrifying (supposedly George Lucas had this in mind when he shot his initial student version of THX-1138).

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    1. Joel, it's intriguing to consider Alphaville in terms of Godard's relationship with Karina. Her characters in some earlier films like A Woman is a Woman feel so alive, and "blank charm" is the perfect way to describe much of her part in Alphaville. The sorrow in the film is also a good point. Even when there's a breakthrough against the system, it doesn't feel so optimistic. Thanks for the great comment!

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  3. This is one of the films of Godard that I really, really want to see as it was on IFC (before it got bought by AMC and made it into a lame channel) but I never got the chance to record it. I hope to see it soon.

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    1. We have a pretty great library system here that seems to have a lot of the Godard films released by Criterion. That's been a bonus in making this marathon easy to organize.

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  4. This was one of my assigned watches in my history of film class in college. I really enjoyed it. It's kinda weird - like that pool scene. The genre mix up works quite well.

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    1. Jess, it's interesting that Alphaville was picked as part of the history of film class. Was it the only Godard on the list? I agree that the mixing of genres is well done.

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    2. We also watched Breathless. We watched this during our noir unit (with Double Indemnity and Touch of Evil). My teacher was a video artist at one point so he always mixed in some strange films - like Last Year at Marienbad. Not sure if that's part of most film history classes but I could be wrong.

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    3. Last Year at Marienbad doesn't seem like the obvious choice, but I can see why it was picked. I've seen it several times, and it's still quite a challenge. The others you mention are more expected.

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