Sunday, October 25, 2009

Octoberflix #3 – “Alphaville”

At long last, here’s the latest Octoberflick for your consideration! What better for an October evening than a tale of a mad scientist who’s seeking world—even intergalactic—domination thru a super computer & enslavement of the population? Of course this brings to mind any number of 1950s B-movies; but it also describes Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville.

In fact, Alphaville combines the sci-fi genre with the hard-boiled detective genre in a way that pre-figures films like Blade Runner—the latter film even echoes Alphaville in some of its plot elements, especially in the underlying love story. Alphaville’s narrative concerns Secret Agent Lemmy Caution’s mission to destroy the super computer Alpha-60 & capture or kill its creator, Professor Von Braun. In the course of this, he meets & falls in love with the Professor’s daughter Natasha (played by Ana Karina). Looked at in its bare bones, the storyline indeed could be taken from a B-movie—which is pa
rt of Godard’s scheme: he places his character Lemmy Caution in a direct line with Dick Tracy & Flash Gordon during a dialogue between Caution & an older agent Henri Dickson (played by Akim Tamiroff).

But while Lemmy Caution (played by Eddie Constantine, who made a career out of portraying this character in film &
television) is a gun-toting, tough-talking agent in a trenchcoat & fedora, a machismo hero who engages in gunplay & car chases, his weapon for destroying Alpha-60 & for saving Natasha is poetry, specifically surrealist Paul Eluard’s Capitale de douleur (this is translated as both “Capital of Pain” & “Capital of Sorrow” in the sub-titles, & both are correct—“douleur” does mean pain in an emotional sense). When he’s interrogated by Alpha-60, they don’t exchange dialogue in typical science fiction fashion—instead, they speak in quotes from Borges & Pascal. At this point, we’ve moved a long way from the realm of genre films.

Reams have been written about Alphaville—it’s the sort of film that actively invites interpretation, & my goal here is to give rather briefly a flavor of the work, not to say anything new & insightful—after all, I’m a musician, not a semiotician. I would say, however, that the
world of Alphaville is not easily reducible to plot summaries or other quick summation. It is in fact a world in which action erupts in erratic bursts—as does Paul Misraki’s score or any number of strange beeping sound effects. The dialogue is also “interrupted” in a sense—fragmentary, koan-like (Eberle’s characterization, which I like), with characters’ speech seemingly inhabiting hermetic spaces—this is notable in the dialogue between Caution & Natasha even in the midst of what could be a romantic breakfast in his hotel room—she has said the forbidden word “why” & is obsessed by remembering when she said it, while Caution is obsessed with her remembering her own past in the “Outlands” (“les pays exterieur,” the other “planets,” such as Tokyorama & Nuevo York, where Caution has come from).

In fact, memory is one faculty that is forbidden in Alphaville: Alpha-60 repeats that no one lived
in the past & no one will live in the future; there is only the present, which is made of iron (this is a quote from Borges’ essay A Refutation of Time, which also provides the language for the film’s opening, as well as Alpha-60’s “dying” speech). Words are also forbidden: "tenderness," "redbreast," "conscience"—Natasha finds that "conscience" has recently been removed from “the Bible,” which is in fact the continuously updated dictionary (a bellhop brings a new edition when he brings their breakfast). We see in this scene, before the breakfast, that Natasha can be saved, as she admits fondness for these excised words; we also see it when she cries a single tear, made almost luminous in a fade to black, when Caution has been beaten by the Professor’s henchman. She cries this single tear—apparently unnoticed—despite the act that weeping is a capital offense, & they have just gone to witness a public execution—actually a bizarre sporting event in which the condemned are gunned down from a diving board & then pursued thru a swimming pool by knife-wielding bathing beauties. Natasha's tear also reminds us of the Tamiroff character’s dying words to Caution: “Save those who weep.”

I must say something about the film’s mise en scène, because it’s rather remarkable—not
remarkable, as we might expect in a contemporary film by being graced with elaborate sets & special effects, but remarkable in fact for the very opposite: Alphaville was filmed in Paris, & Godard transforms the City of Light into a cold, stygian darkness only illuminated with neon signs & fluorescent lights—at one point while Caution is being escorted by the police away from the interrogation chamber, banks of fluorescent lights come on & a policeman remarks: “It’s day.” There is very little natural light in the entire film; sometimes, as in the image to the left, the film is "solarized" to produce a "negative." I believe someone once described the Caution character not as a man of the present in a city of the future, but as a man of the past in a city of the present. Also, tho the film is set at some indeterminate future point, there are a number of references to what was the recent past in 1965: Los Alamos (commentors also point out the connection between “A”-bomb & “Alpha”ville) & Guadalcanal; of course, Professor Von Braun also reminds us of Werner Von Braum, the German rocket scientist. In the final scene, as Caution & Natasha are escaping Alphaville, they are driving thru “intersidereal space” in a Ford Galaxie driven along a nighttime freeway.

This film is difficult—although I’ve watched it many times, Caution’s obsession with
photographing everything still puzzles me (just as a for instance)—but to my mind its strengths far out-weigh its opacity—& to a great degree, arise from aspects of this opacity. While it won’t be to everyone’s taste, I recommend giving it a try. You can get a bit of an idea of the film from the clip below, in which Karina recites from La Capitale de la douleur, enumerating those qualities that can provide salvation from the human/inhuman monstrosity of Alphaville—it is crucial I think to the film to remember that this isn’t a story about a good hero toppling an evil villain, but about the struggle between our own “humanity” & “inhumanity.”

Alphaville isn’t scheduled for Turner Classic Movies in the foreseeable future, but it is a Netflix
selection & should be available at video rental stores with a good foreign films section. What better time to journey to this city of the “dead,” where people (in Eluard’s words) “die of not dying” (“mourir de ne past mourir”) than this season, when our cinematic thoughts often turn to death & monsters: the death & monsters of Alphaville are indeed the most frightening of all: in potential, ourselves.

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  1. Thanks, John, excellent review. It's going on my Netflix queue right now!

  2. Hi Willow: & thanks! For whatever reason--& despite (or because) I like this film a lot, I found it difficult to write up.

  3. Being completely non-francophonic, I must ask - does the film come with subtitles?

  4. 'Alphaville' knocked me out first time around. Thanks for so acute a reminder of its allure. Bring back Lemmy Caution!

  5. I am not a fan of Godard but "Alphaville" its a movie from another planet. When I saw it first time I didn't believed in my eyes.You can say that untill today its a modern film.
    I liked Ana Karina but I had a bitter sense when I think Eddie Constantine. One of the most underrated actors in European cinema.
    You described the film in a perfect way. Sorry for my English, I know sometimes they seems like a Japanese film without subtitles.
    I can read everything in English but its difficult for me when I want to writte somothing, I don't feel sure that I give th meaning of my words.

  6. Hi Dick & Don Michael

    Dick: Yes, I felt that way too!

    Don Micahel: It is the one Godard film I like with out qualification--or any significant qualifications anyway. Thanks for your kind words about the review; & your English is many many many times better than my non-existent Greek.


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