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Alphaville: aka Alphaville, une Strange aventure de Lemmy Caution
Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is a tough guy, an American secret agent sent from ‘the outlands' to the futuristic city of Alphaville to find out what happened to a missing agent named Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff). But this isn't the only reason he's here. Lemmy is also to take out Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon), the very creator of Alphaville itself. On top of that, he's also tasked with destroying Alpha 60, the sentient computer system created by von Braun which controls the entire city where self-expression, emotion and love are outlawed. Alpha 60 has even made it illegal for the citizens of Alphaville to ask ‘why?'. This has, quite understandably, resulted in Alphaville becoming a very cold place, devoid of emotion or caring and inhabited by people who subscribe only to strict logic.
Lemmy arrives in his Ford Mustang (which is referred to as a Ford Galaxie) and, after making his way to the hotel where he can have access to pretty much anything he could hope for, he meets the beautiful Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), a programmer and the professor's daughter. When Lemmy soon falls in love with her, his introduction of emotion into the proceedings quickly complicates things as the pair figure out her past and the professor's true origins. This, of course, leads to some interesting and unexpected conflict not just between Caution and the professor but between Caution and Alpha 60 as well.
A wonderfully strange mix of gumshoe detective work, science fiction trappings and Orwellian political leanings, Alphaville is a beautifully compelling picture worth seeing multiple times. The plot isn't overly complex but it posits plenty of food for thought to the audience as it makes clear that what saves the day is being true to one's self and the importance of emotion in life. Art is quite literally used as a weapon at one point, but the wrapping up of these elements in the sci-fi/noir sheen keeps the film from feeling too pretentious or self-important. It's entertainment, sure, but it's heady, smart entertainment and a film that leaves you thinking long after it's finished.
It's no secret that a big part of the film's appeal is its sense of visual style. The cinematography from Raoul Coutard is frequently stunning, using close up shots very effectively, cutting to neon now and then unexpectedly to give us a bit of a jolt. The choice to shoot the film in black and white further enhances its noirish traits, while the fantastic score from Paul Misraki is simultaneously unnerving and completely appropriate to the story at hand. Production values are strong here, and while Godard wasn't working with a massive budget here, nor was he really able to create specific sets for the picture (it was pretty much all shot on location in and around Paris), the tone is so spot on and the melding of sound and vision so strong that you're never once pulled out of it.
The film also benefits immensely from a very strong cast. Eddie Constantine is a great choice to play the lead. He just looks like a tough guy, he has that weathered, world weary vibe about him that suits the character perfectly and he does a great job here. Howard Vernon, best known to genre fans for the many appearances he would make in various Jess Franco pictures over the years, is an interesting choice to play the professor. He makes it work and delivers a good performance. Akim Tamiroff also does a great job. It is, however, Anna Karina who really steals the show. There's something about her performance here that is both mysterious and alluring. Clearly a very striking and beautiful woman (and the director's muse for the better part of a decade), she brings a very natural style to the part that just works perfectly on the context of what Godard has created with this, one of the best film's he would ever lend his name to.
Alphaville arrives on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber on a 50GB disc in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed in its original 1.33.1 aspect ratio taken from a new 4k restoration. There's some print damage here and there and minor scratches visible at times but overall, this looks really nice. The strong bit rate keeps compression artifacts in check and the black and white cinematography is very nicely represented here with proper contrast and strong black levels. As you'd expect, there's noticeably stronger detail, depth and texture in pretty much every frame of the movie when compared to the older DVD edition from Criterion. There's no evidence at all that any noise reduction was applied here, at least not overzealously, and the picture shows no edge enhancement either. The end result should please fans, this is an impressive picture and very much a film-like presentation for one of Goddard's best!
Kino provides 16-bit DTS-HD Mono tracks in both English and French language options with removable subtitles provided in English only. The film plays better in French but both tracks sound quite good. Dialogue is clean and clear and balance is fine. The score has stronger range and power than you might expect an older single channel track to have and there are no problems with any hiss or distortion.
Extras start off with a commentary track from Tim Lucas, who does a good job of explaining the history of the Lemmy Caution character by exploring his literary roots and the films in which the character appeared before this one. He speaks plenty about Godard's style, makes some interesting and valid comparisons between this film and the work of contemporaries like David Cronenberg, ties the film into Jess Franco's filmography and gives plenty of background information not just on the director but the key cast members as well, especially Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina and Howard Vernon. There's a few quite spots here and there towards the end of the track but overall, Lucas manages to cover a lot of ground here, offering up with right mix of critical analysis and background information/trivia.
Also found on the disc is a five-minute optional introduction to the film from Colin McCabe and a five-minute interview with Anna Karina. McCabe talks about the film's history and it's science fiction themes while Karina talks about working with Godard on the film, her character and her thoughts on the picture overall. Both of these are interesting and worth checking out.
Finishing off the extras is a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other French titles available from Kino Lorber (Le Doulos, Bob Le Flambeur, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi and Razzia Sur La Chnouf), menus and chapter selection. The disc also comes packaged with some nice reversible cover sleeve art.
Alphaville is as intriguing with its experimentation as it is eternally cool, a groundbreaking mix of sci-fi and film noir and a work of great originality. Kino has done a very nice job bringing this one to Blu-ray, presenting the film in beautiful shape and with a strong audio commentary serving as its main extra feature. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.