Alphaville (1965), or The Most And Least Sci-Fi

7 08 2009

Anybody who’s followed this site knows of my distinct love for one particular French director. Jean-Luc Godard knows how to move me. It feels like every movie he ever made was made just for me. There’s something so personal about the journey of an auteur, and Godard is an auteur whose personal journey and unique vision are really close to my heart. As an artist, he evokes feelings with unusual dialog and images, much like a poet would with unusual beats and vocabulary. He also evokes feelings by dissecting different genres of film and turning them on their head to show us what makes them tick and why they affect us. Today’s feature is Godard’s crack at science fiction, and it might be the most experimental sci-fi film I’ve ever seen. There are no fancy sets, no big budgets, not even many indications that it is a sci-fi film. But that’s the whole point, really; to see just how far a film can go beyond the norm, to push the boundaries and explore the genre a little. And, after all, isn’t exploration one of the most powerful themes of science fiction?

Sometime in the future (or the present; it’s hard to tell with the strange architecture mixed with 60s-style cars and dress), an agent named Lemmy Caution has a series of missions to complete in the futuristic (?) city of Alphaville. First, he must find another agent named Dickson who has disappeared within the last few weeks. Next, he must capture the creator of Alphaville, Prof. Von Braun, dead or alive. And lastly, he must destroy the evil computer that runs the town, Alpha 60. Along the way, he meets the inhabitants of this strange future world; a cold, emotionless lot who have been worn down by their computer master to worship logic above all things. This secret agent must dig deeper than any have dared to destroy the power of Alpha 60, and he must also deal with its living disciples/police, who will do whatever it takes to keep the status quo. Can Lemmy do it all without dying or, perhaps worse yet, falling in love with the Professor’s cold but beautiful daughter Natacha?

This movie will test your tolerance for bizarre imagery. This is one of the most vividly unsound films I have experienced. Out of all his entire body of work I’ve seen so far, this one demands the most from me, and it is so invigorating! I really enjoyed not being able to lay back and let the movie just happen to me. It tested me, and I think I passed, albeit with some points counted off (but that’s just first-time jitters!). You will absolutely NEVER see another film like this. I swear on my life that this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. How unique is it? Well, here’s 3 minutes of the film. Just 3 minutes!

Was that not incredible? Was that not insane? Now, it all makes sense in context, in a way, so don’t be ashamed at your confusion. And don’t be afraid to laugh if you thought the fighting was hilarious; that was intentional. It’s not your typical sci-fi, where laughing is a cardinal sin. Godard is actually a very funny director, when he wants to be, so the mock-noir violence was a hilarious homage to movies like The Big Sleep, where all the action was VERY blocked.

But it is so much more. There are the philosophical questions asked throughout the film about life without emotions and the ramifications of a logical machine imposing its will over wildly illogical humans. There are the scenes where Lemmy tries to break through Natacha’s frozen heart with a logic all his own. There is a wealth of priceless dialog and interaction between Lemmy and the denizens of Alphaville. It is a Surrealist movie about the domination of logic over imagination, and how one should never be allowed to have control over the other. It’s wonderful, beguiling, and not easily understood the first time viewing it.

The acting is superb! Lemmy Caution is played by Eddie Constantine. In another bit of “Where in time is Alphaville?”, Lemmy Caution is actually a character that had been around for years before in Noir movies of the 50s, even played by Eddie Constantine every time, but Godard used him in this movie as a template for a hard-boiled detective that could be the foil to Alpha 60. It sets the movie into time-zone limbo again, but Constantine’s straight-man performance is just what this film needs. Anna Karina is beautiful as Natacha, in one of the last Karina-Godard pair-ups. She is amazing, as usual, and never let anyone say that she has no depth. Through the veil of despondence, Natacha says a lot about human relationships without saying much at all, and I deeply respect that quality in such a role. My other favorite character was one I’m sure you heard in the clip, Alpha 60. The strange voice of Alphaville’s mastermind was created by hiring a voice actor with a mechanical voice box due to throat cancer, and it makes for quite a performance that must have been very difficult for the actor, but very intriguing for the audience.

Alphaville is unlike any sci-fi movie you’ll ever see. It is a movie with a lot to say, but it never says it directly. It’s spoken in Surrealist code that must be broken down by an inquisitive viewer in order to fully digest it. It’s funny, tragic, suspenseful, and satisfying. If they could make more sci-fi movies like this, the genre wouldn’t be such a stagnant mess right now. But, as it stands, Alphaville exists alone and apart from the genre it both epitomizes and alienates. You might find it pretentious and off-putting, as some indeed do, but true cinephiles cannot deny its potency and its originality. I give this one-of-a-kind movie my highest rating of 10 slow-motion fights out of 10. My highest recommendation!
Tomorrow I don’t know what I’ll watch! But you can bet that I’ll watch something, whatever it is! Until then!!!