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DVD SAVANT

Alphaville


Alphaville
Criterion 25
1965 / B&W / 1:33 flat / 99 min. / Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution / Release Date October 20, 1998 / $29.98
Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff, Howard Vernon
Cinematography Raoul Coutard
Production Designer Pierre Guffroy
Film Editor Agnès Guillemot
Original Music Paul Misraki
Written by Jean-Luc Godard and Paul Éluard
Produced by André Michelin
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

I know more than a few Sci-fi addicts who have been excited to catch up with Alphaville, only to be gravely disappointed when confronted with their first hardcore Jean-Luc Godard movie. Compared to a commercial product Alphaville is woefully underproduced and slipshod-looking -- but only at first glance. As a teenager, I was fascinated by this gray filmed comic strip, when I read and re-read its published script numerous times before catching up with it at a midnight show in Westwood. Savant's in no position to interpret the 'art' of Jean-Luc Godard, but because it uses familiar pulp movie icons as a springboard for his poetic mode of expression, Alphaville gave me the beginnings of an understanding of the idiosyncratic French director.

Synopsis:

Following in the footsteps of previous failures Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon, secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) arrives in Alphaville. It's a technocracy ruled by a gravel-voiced central computer called Alpha-60, that has regimented humans into strict classes and split the city into zones of night and day, cold and warmth. Alpha-60 also has ambitions to conquer the rest of the world -- Nueva York, Tokyorama -- and rule all under its cold eye of logic. Lemmy contacts his immediate predecessor, Henry Dickson, and discovers he has become a hopeless drunk in a seedy hotel; Dickson puts him on to Professor Von Braun, aka defector Leonard Nosferatu (horror icon Howard Vernon), the brains behind the superbrain Alpha 60. Lemmy finds himself embroiled in a weird romance with Natasha Von Braun, the mastermind's daughter (Anna Karina) and plays semantic games when interrogated by the all-controlling computer. But when Lemmy's had enough, he lashes out with the power of poetry and a .45 automatic and single-handedly brings Alphaville to its knees.

Jean-Luc Godard's genre movies are intellectual, jokey meditations that use films as a springboard for his free-associative political ideas. They go beyond being self-referential, spoofy or camp. They use no 'in' 60s style, and instead transcend their material by simply opening wide the structural underpinnings of films, especially genre films. In A Woman is a Woman Godard has his actors sing non-songs and dance non-dances to show that, for him, a Musical is more a matter of spirit than of performance. It gets pretty weird when the picture jumps between held poses imitating Gene Kelly stills, as if to indicate, 'place boffo dance number here'. Godard uses the same gag when it comes time to stage a 'dynamic fight scene' for Alphaville. We merely cut to the fighters in extreme poses, patiently holding still. Naturally, he loses a majority of the general audience right then and there - Alphaville was a mini-release art film for festivals and the Expresso set.

Godard constructs his movies like unrepentant beat poetry. Many have ragged inter-titles arbitrarily inserting bald political messages, sometimes frustratingly obvious ones. In Alphaville, the screen is constantly being seized by neon signs, drawings and traffic signals, etc. Here they signify the aura of the omniscient Alpha-60 computer, a menace represented visually by whirring fans and crude flashing lights accompanied by telegraph noises. The voice of Alpha-60, as has been pointed out, is the 'dead voice' of a man with no larynx, who has learned to speak artificially by making croaking sounds.

Godard doesn't try to compensate for a lack of traditional production values but instead flaunts his budget 'weaknesses' by declaring them irrelevant. There are no special effects except for flashing to negative every once in awhile -- to perhaps represent the malfunctioning of Alpha-60? Raoul Coutard's handheld photography is actually very smooth, even beautiful. There are a number of well-shot scenes that contrast with setups as crude as anything in a no-budget exploitation movie. It's the artistic tone of Godard's film that says, 'I'm trying to express myself here. This is Jazz. Read between the images - it's not my job to put a perfect phony image in front of your faces at all times.'

Godard's theme is a powerful one: Poetry versus the inhuman computer future. A production title considered was Tarzan versus IBM. With the SuperSpy subgenre getting into swing, the timing was perfect for a patchwork film made of pieces of genre conventions. Expatriate American GI-turned French movie star Eddie Constantine and his Lemmy Caution character were an established tough guy convention, so Godard co-opted them. What we see and what we hear are at constant odds with one another: Caution's trip through inter-sidereal space in his 'Galaxie' is a simply him arriving by freeway in a late-model American Mustang. We see some industrial installations standing in for the main works of Alpha-60, and the interrogation rooms look like ordinary recording booths. The futuristic city of Alphaville is suggested simply by showing the modern structures of 1965 Paris, which Godard implies are already architecturally inhuman. Like any two-fisted hero Caution carries a big gun. But his only gadget is a pitiful Instamatic camera, a mass-produced piece of junk with a flashcube on top which took low-quality photos through a cheap lens.

Poetry and literature are at the center of the story. Books are disappearing along with individual words in the dictionaries that are replaced daily as more words and their underlying concepts are eliminated. Natasha Von Braun, beautifully played by Anna Karina, doesn't recognize the word 'tenderness' and has forgotten what it means. It's a poetic conceit (like the whole show) but it has teeth: Our culture seems to 'forget' concepts and the words that go with them. Only individuals keep them alive.

The condemned dreamers of Alphaville are murdered in an indoor pool execution chamber during a ritual that combines Nazi slaughter with an Esther Williams-style aquacade. As each victim dies, they shout out their last words. One of them talks about moving straight toward one's goal instead of in circles, a theme that echoes throughout Alphaville. The circles are everywhere, hiding to entrap the individual in the computer's logic and in the circular stairways. 'Going in circles' is the activity of the inhabitants of this 'Nowheresville' -- pointless circles because Alpha-60 has drained the meaning from their lives. In contrast, Lemmy Caution beelines his way straight to confront his enemies, and straight to the things he loves.

Alphaville is the Capital of Pain as seen in the title of a Paul Éluard book in Natasha's hand. But Alphaville is also intensely romantic. Lemmy Caution has Humphrey Bogart's sentimental toughness: "Not bad for a veteran of Guadalcanal!" His pockmarked face with its sad, dead eyes is a repository for the conscience of the world. He acts the tough guy around Natasha but they share a 'poetic duet' played out in his mundane hotel room with its jukebox and darkened salon. Lemmy and Natasha pose before a mirror as the camera exposure racks up and down. The bright light erases the textures of their skin, darkens into murk, and then comes back up again. The words of the love poem are beautiful in both French and English, and include more references to 'going straight to what you love'.  1

Lemmy Caution is the ultimate secret agent, a vengeful angel. "Reporter and Revenger start with the same letter," he deadpans. There's enough evidence of totalitarian evil in Alphaville to prompt him to destroy the whole place without batting an eye. Naturally, every other agent has failed, including several well-known comic strip heroes. The bad guys beat him up, at one point getting the better of Lenny by using a verbal joke -- words are all-powerful in Godard's world. Cold fish Professor Von Braun tries to bribe him with a private dictatorship of his own. Finally, he's pitted against the unbeatable logic of Alpha-60's circuits. But Lemmy answers the computer's questions with poetry that 'doesn't compute,' and poses a verbal enigma to the haughty proto-HAL that initiates a processing meltdown. Because Alpha-60 keeps central control of everything in its technological empire the whole system collapses, from the vast power centers to the individual 'citizens' who used to be people.  2

Caution goes his own way in this 'dark city of the imagination', ignoring instructions to report for interrogation and bulling his way where he's not wanted. The details provide context and humor. His cover identity, reporter Ivan Johnson of Figaro-Pravda indicates how our present-day world has been rearranged into a new pattern. The nonsensical class that Natasha attends discusses mind-control and mass murder as acceptable activities. Ever in contempt of his high-toned surroundings, Lemmy shines his shoes on the carpeted steps of his hotel and shuns the number-tattooed prostitutes that appear whenever he approaches his room.  3

Two scientists called Heckle and Jeckyll (played by a pair of film critics) labor in a think tank, staring at a pretty girl in a trench coat. Another female stands naked, a living statuary 'working' behind glass near a well-traveled stairway. A vending machine is a nasty joke on the concept of politeness. Lemmy pushes his way past turnkeys and guards, finally cutting loose in action that parodies commercially recognizable scenes of violence. He bursts through a door to let several thugs have it with his gun, and we know he's as potent as any mainstream secret agent man. When Lemmy catches up with Von Braun he does his talking via more pulp poetry, and lets his gun finish up. A voiceover epitaph for the tyrant is read over a grim shot of Lemmy lighting a cigarette: "Let this be a lesson to all those who would take the world for their private hobby horse."

At the conclusion, Godard brings in imagery from every kind of source. "La Zone" of Cocteau is revived in the lost, unbalanced way the 'ant' citizens of Alphaville stagger and cling to the walls after their central control self-destructs. Alpha-60 has removed their souls and now they're without an interior compass, cut off from gravity. Natasha flops about like a rag doll until Lemmy becomes her source of stability. As Alphaville burns and explodes around them (just a voiceover reference) they escape into outer space (the freeway again). The Misraki music becomes transcendent as Lemmy helps Natasha remember the concept of 'Love'. It's intensely romantic, with the pulpy notion that if he can make her say the word, if she can remember what it means, the concept of Love can return. SuperSpy movies are mostly dumb exploitative spectacles that resonate because they play with pulp culture ideas, often in ignorance. Jean-Luc Godard knows the magic that revolves around poetry and pulp, and animates every minute of Alphaville with this kind of liberating imagination.


Criterion's DVD of Alphaville is a very good rendition of the film, as good as the theatrical prints I've seen and far better than the awful dubbed and mangled messes once shown on television. It's flat 1:33, which looks appropriate, although I'm sure my 35mm screenings were slightly wider. The encoding is fine enough to pick out subtle differences in grain and film stock, and the source film element looks to be undamaged.

There are no extras but Andrew Sarris' short liner notes effortlessly sum up the film's charm and significance. The artsy cover graphics do the show no favors in the marketing sector, but anyone seeking Alphaville would track it down if it were in an unmarked brown wrapper -- traveling in a straight line, of course.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alphaville rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 6, 2002


Footnotes:

1. I recommend watching the sequence several times, a couple to think about the English translation of the poetry in the subtitles, and then a couple times more without subs to enjoy the way the unencumbered visuals play against the French words. It's wonderful. If it doesn't appeal to you, you'll know not to try any more Jean-Luc Godard films.
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2. This is the overused gag cliche found in dozens of Sci-fi Telefilms from Star Trek to The Prisoner, when glib heroes talk their way to victory against constipated computers. Dark Star finally broke the pattern with its talking bomb that listens to philosophical arguments but makes up its own damn mind, thank you.
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3. Released in the same year, Alphaville and Our Man Flint are practically the same story. Females are reduced to pleasure units and a hero swears to destroy a benign scientific dictatorship.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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