Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

A futuristic dystopia called Alphaville that looks an awful lot like 1965 Paris, a secret agent in full-on fedora and trench coat uber-noir garb, assassins hiding in the bathroom that’re dispatched of without a second thought, seductresses Third Class, a supercomputer who espouses logic-based dogmas with a voice sounding like a belching frog, executions for acting illogically, shady scientists, and Anna Karina appearing out of nowhere and staring at the camera if for no other reason than to look innocent and radiate her famed beauty.  If all that is your cup of tea, god bless ya.  Me, I’m still not sure what to make of Jean-Luc Godard’s mish-mash of sci-fi, noir, humor, and heady philosophy.  If it’s supposed to be a send-up or a semi-parody of film noir, then I’ve never seen another parody take itself this seriously.  If it’s supposed to be an off-kilter yet serious 1984-esque commentary on society and totalitarianism and an over-abundance of logic, then I’ve never seen another heartfelt parable that feels so silly.  That’s Godard for ya – can never tell whether he’s being dead-serious with 20-minute poetic treatises that mean nothing and weird actor staging and jump cuts and overall abundance of style, or if he’s being ironic, basically making fun of himself.  I was able to enjoy “Alphaville” mainly by looking it with a cynical eye, by assuming that Godard was being ironic.  Although, Eddie Constantine as his long time alter ego, secret agent Lemmy Caution, is really, really cool, rarely if ever taking off that trench coat and fedora and acting gruff and rough as all hell, even when he’s smooth-talking.  He’s the prototypical noir anti-hero taken to the ultimate excess, and putting him in a so-called sci-fi setting probably does mean that persona’s supposed to be more ironic than anything.  Anna Karina’s far too innocent, both in looks and behavior, to be taken seriously as a femme fatale type, though that’s probably the point if “Alphaville”’s to be looked at as a semi-parody.  The idea of a totalitarian city run by a supercomputer run amok, where executions and synchronized swimming go hand-in-hand, and where words like ‘love’ and ‘conscience’ are outlawed and downright stupefy people like Karina’s Natacha von Braun, is a compelling one, and some elements of “Alphaville” work that theme well, and others don’t.  The computer, Alpha 60’s, doctrines on the merits of logic are obviously absurd and pretentious, and we’re supposed to regard it with disdain – but to force us to listen to that painful (though effectively creepy) voice for about five minutes, intercut with some drawings, until I’m absolutely dying for the story to just move along?  Overkill.  And to see people like Natacha become so lifeless and confused when words like ‘love’, and the gruff but human Lemmy Caution, are introduced into their dystopia is great, but then to just stop everything so that Anna Karina can recite a poem while she and Eddie Constantine stare into the camera making chic Calvin Klein poses like in the picture above?  Ridiculous.  It’s funny, though – the Alpha 60’s cold sense of logic and Lemmy Caution’s gruff noir stereotype get tiresome and at times feel as fake as those vintage Godard scenes of visual and verbal excess, yet the scenes where secret agent and computer interact, via interrogation, are the very best in the entire film, where an emotionless computer who sounds like a smoker’s electronic voice box, and a secret agent who has that understanding of love and compassion, but doesn’t show it outwardly, clash.  All of a sudden, that stylish parody of the noir detective of old becomes dynamic, and human, and it just took a supercomputer to do it.  So I don’t know what to make of “Alphaville” – I liked Constantine’s Lemmy Caution, both as a send-up of noir anti-heroes and as the unexpected herald of love and conscience to the dystopic Alphavile, I liked the wonderful Mr. Akim Tamaroff as the missing agent whom Lemmy is dispatched to search for, and I liked the understated moments of cinematography, like Godard was just going around Paris with a cheap camera – that made it feel real, made me not even care anymore that Godard makes no attempt to make present-day Paris look like a futuristic dystopia.  I liked the overall feel of parody, with the ‘dun-dun-DUN’ music cues and Lemmy Caution and Anna Karina’s anti-femme fatale and bizarre moments like with the professional seductresses and unexpected assassins that, intentionally or not, play for laughs.  But then you get the feeling that this isn’t supposed to be parody at all, that Godard’s taking all this completely seriously with the pretentious speeches and poetry recitations and nearly-subliminal images of E=mc2, and I have no idea whether to like this fun little jab at film noir and society, or whether to hate another instance of Godard reaching for style and some kind of grand statement that just ends up getting overblown…so I’ll go halfway between the mediocre 5 and the perfect 10 😛 .


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