Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Cult Classic of the Week: Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard was one of the leading filmmakers of the movement known as the French New Wave. The style and techniques used in Breathless (1960), his first feature, changed the landscape of cinema forever. As his career progressed, his politics tended to overshadow his technique. Along with Contempt (1963), Alphaville might be one of Godard's more conventional films.

American ex-pat actor Eddie Constantine found his niche portraying the private eye Lemmy Caution in a series of low-budget French crime films produced during the 1950s and early '60s, and based on the work of 1930s British writer Peter Cheyney. Even in other movies, the gruff, no-nonsense personality of the Lemmy Caution character carried over because of his popularity.

In true Godard fashion, Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution is a departure from the norm: an existential sci-fi noir/private eye film. Instead of Cold War Europe, the film finds Caution in a nebulous future era. He's sent by the Outer Countries to the technological "utopia" of Alphaville to find a missing scientist. Using his cover as a journalist, he makes his way through various levels of the bureaucracy (technocracy?), making contact with another undercover agent and falling in love with the scientist's daughter. That doesn't stop Caution from using her to get to the heart of Alphaville, the sentient computer Alpha-90. It's a battle of love and poetry versus the cold calculating logic of the machine that controls an entire population--and wants to expand that control to the Outer Countries.

I say "nebulous future", because it's unclear just exactly when or where the action takes place. Caution mentions being a veteran of Guadalcanal, which puts him in the post-war 20th century. He drives what looks like an early-'60s Mustang. The streets have other motor cars and buildings that would be at home in 1960s Paris, albeit futuristic modern architecture fitting the story.

However, there is the geopolitical question: what are the "Outer Counties"? Is "Nueva York" New York City? Where is Alphaville located? The weather and daylight are different from the north side to the south side. I like to think that it's an isolated island city-state in the middle of the Atlantic, based on the night scenes of driving to and from Alphaville, filmed on long streetlight-lit straight roads.

But then there is the talk about "galaxies". Lemmy's car is a "Ford Galaxy". Alpha-90 speaks about Caution traveling "light-years" across "open space". Caution is offered control of at least one "galaxy" in exchange for his cooperation. Because of the anachronistic mix of words and images, I believe that one possible reading of the film is that it's all a fever dream; it only exists in the mind of the Lemmy Caution from his other films, a nightmare brought on by the ever-increasing danger and loss of identity in the post-war atomic age.

I'm not sure that it really matters if the story is set on Earth or if Alphaville is another planet. Godard is playing with the conventions of the pulp/noir film drama, mixing in his own meditations of life, the meaning of art, beauty, and what it means to be human in an increasingly tech-driven consumer-focused society where the people move in circles and more words are removed from the "bible" (a dictionary) every day. It's very much in the same realm as other science-fiction dystopias as 1984, Brave New World, and films from Soylent Green to Blade Runner. It was also one of the inspirations for the name of this blog.

I watched Alphaville using streaming Netflix. The Criterion Collection released it very early on DVD (with only a liner notes essay, available online) although it appears to be out-of-print currently. I'm not sure if Criterion still the rights. If so, I hope they consider updating this title to a proper special edition on DVD or Blu-ray. Many of Eddie Constantine's other Lemmy Caution films are available from Sinister Cinema.

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