Thursday, March 11, 2010

Godard Marathon Day 4: Alphaville (1965)

I was only able to squeeze in one movie for Day 4, but it was a doozy.

Alphaville (1965); viewing: first

Godard's follow up to 1964's A Married Woman was the stylish and strange Alphaville, a blending of classic noir and sci-fi genres that saw Godard cast French star Eddie Constantine in the role of Lemmy Caution, an agent from the Outer Lands who has infiltrated the city of Alphaville posing as a journalist, who in reality is on a muti-part mission: to destory Alpha 60, the super-computer that runs Alphaville, and locate and kill its creator Dr. Von Braun. Anna Karina (divorced from Godard by this point but present nevertheless) plays a prostitute named Natasha, who in addition to being Eddie's eventual love interest, is also Von Braun's daughter. Complicating matters further, Alpha 60 has outlawed the expression of any emotion in Alphaville, so the brainwashed Karina has no concept of "love", and thus can't reciprocate Eddie's feelings.

It is a wholly unique and interesting entry into the Godard canon, and it once again felt like Godard at still this early point in his career was pushing himself into new and exciting territory. There is a bit of a sci-fi nerd within me, so seeing Godard put his unique spin on this specific genre was pretty thrilling. With the city of Alphaville he creates his own version of a future dystopian society, flooded with an ominous atmosphere that's made all the more fascinating as he explores the intricacies of this crazy place and inevitably sprinkles on one philosophical reflection after the other. Among those discussed is one that was also prominent in A Married Woman, and that is the idea of people living in the past versus people living in the present. I think it marks a subtle, yet interesting parallel between the two films, each that in one way or another deal with a female in dire need of liberation.

Eddie Constantine is just remarkable as Lemmy Caution. With his no bullshit attitude, awesome voice, and scarred face in all its haunted glory, he literally could have popped right off the page of any old private eye cartoon. Karina is equally good as the innocent who has in most ways been robbed of her soul. The voice of Alpha 60 (a constant throughout the movie) is quite a trip; a guttural and disturbing ooze of a voice, a character in itself, and the scene where it interrogates Constantine in a room was one of my very favorites. Another chilling scene comes when Constantine is led by Karina to a large swimming pool, where people who have shown "illogical behavior", that is, shown human emotion, and are given last words before being shot to death and dumped in the pool, as spectators look on unaffected. Alphaville did become a little muddled for me in the middle, but my attention was always sustained during these periods by the sheer screen presence of its stars and by Godard's always arresting visuals, of which there is certainly no shortage of here. It's a weird, yet captivating and occasionally poignant tale, constantly brimming with ideas, about the worth of human emotion. It also contains one of the strongest and most touching endings I've seen in a Godard picture yet. As food for thought, I'll leave you with this interesting excerpt from Richard Brody's book Everything Is Cinema :

"Alphaville would be another attempt, like A Married Woman, to show that Karina's true emotions had been distorted and suppressed by irresistible external influences and forces. The main drama of the film would be the effort of Lemmy Caution to teach Karina's character to say the words "I love you." Through an extraordinary filter of genre, it would be a film in which Godard was desperate for life to imitate art."


Jake said...

Alphaville didn't really grab me as much as it did you and Ed Howard. I agree that it has a great atmosphere, but I think the middle section plays things just a bit too loosely and it lost me before rallying for the finish.

I took the dispassionate execution scene to be a reference to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, which may not have been Godard's intent but a scenario in the book plays out almost in identical fashion.

That Brody excerpt worries me though, as it plays into what I've read about his book, that in arranging Godard's oeuvre around the theory that, y'know, everything is cinema (a notion I would agree with), he also simplifies Godard's work based on personal relationships and the like. I do think that it's no coincidence that the Karina character is the one who cannot feel love, but as you will see (or have seen already if you've watched it before) in Pierrot le fou, her character in that film directly contradicts the image of her character here with a single, piercing line. I've read reviews that mention how Brody basically forces the films to fit his thesis and ignores anything that paints a more complex portrait, and that excerpt along with the borderline absurd essay in Criterion's Pierrot booklet make me question ordering myself a copy (I was planning to read it and write a review for it after getting through Godard's films). I've heard also that, while he does spend time writing about his post-Weekend films, Brody still doesn't expend too much effort with the films that so many gloss over.

Drew said...

Thanks a lot for the comment Jake. I am not familiar with We, but will make a point to look into that work, as your comment has me intrigued now.

As far as Brody's book goes, I've only been reading the chapters corresponding to each movie starting with Vivre sa vie, but yes, he does tend to dwell on the theory that Godard's personal life (most notably his relationship with Anna K. or course) has a deep correspondence with and command of the direction of his work. I find it to be an interesting notion, but certainly reductionist and I do find myself often wishing that he would dig a little deeper. Which of course makes me glad that there are blogs like yours and Ed's (among others of course) that provide insightful, thoughtful analysis of these challenging films!

To be fair, while I initially intended on relying on the Brody book to aid me with the actual films, I've found myself turning more to the internet and blogs in that respect, and have instead found the real value of the book to be in its bio aspects, shedding light on the circumstances in Godards life during the making of these films, which, regardless of Brody's theory that it's all one and the same, is compelling and illuminating reading.

Drew said...

I also wanted to add in my comment that the reason I included that Brody quote in the writeup was simply because I found it to be an alternate theory on the entire work condensed to a simple few sentences. A simplified, and rather uninteresting take as we've agreed on, but I felt like tacking it on just for kicks nonetheless.

Jake said...

Oh, I'm not suggesting that you're missing the point or being reductive by quoting him, I just eyed it suspiciously.