Review: Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ still makes a strong connection
Before he loved anything else, Jean-Luc Godard loved genre: He famously dedicated his first feature film, “Breathless,” to Monogram Pictures, one of the monarchs of Poverty Row B-picture production.
But as “Breathless” demonstrated, Godard never did anything straight up. He did genre his own playful way, and never more so than in 1965’s “Alphaville,” a film that was part science fiction, part hard-boiled adventure, and all Godard.
Playing for a week at the Nuart in West Los Angeles in a sharp new digital restoration, “Alphaville” is more than quintessential Godard. Despite its age it’s that rare science fiction film that doesn’t seem to have dated at all.
That’s partly because, in an act of typical impishness, everything you see in “Alphaville” looks quintessential 1960s. It was Godard’s notion to create a future using nothing but language and attitude. And Eddie Constantine.
Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, an FBI agent created by British novelist Peter Cheyney. The actor had played Caution straight in seven previous French films, but here everything was pitched differently. Wearing a white trench coat and a black fedora and with a face that looked like it had gone too many rounds with too many people, “Alphaville’s” Caution was a stranger in a strange land, a Raymond Chandler-reading secret agent on a mission he can’t reveal.
Arriving at a luxury hotel in Alphaville, the capital of the galaxy, Caution pretends he’s a reporter from the Figaro-Pravda newspaper, not the last time Godard has fun with language and names. Streets are called Heisenberg and Fermi, Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon are absent colleagues, and a pair of scientists are named after the cartoon characters Heckle and Jeckle.
Things in the capital are different from what Caution is used to. Robotic sex workers with categorizations like “seductress third class” accompany you to your room, and the odd gunman is likely as not to burst in and try to kill you for no reason. “Strange things are normal in this town,” Caution says, and he’s got that right.
Caution’s first move is to make contact with his colleague Henry Dickson (the venerable Hollywood character actor Akim Tamiroff) and compares notes on Alpha 60, the super computer that runs things in Alphaville. Caution’s mission, as it turns out, is to find and bring back, dead or alive, a certain Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon), the computer’s right-hand man.
The secret agent also makes the acquaintance of the enigmatic Natasha Von Braun (Godard regular Anna Karina), the professor’s beautiful daughter. Natasha seems all but emotionless, and it turns out that emotion has been banned in Alphaville and she’s never even heard of being in love. (One of the film’s oddest scenes is the beyond-strange swimming pool executions of people who were guilty of “acting illogically.”)
For Godard, whose marriage to actress Karina was coming apart at the time, “Alphaville” was in part about the importance of love and human connection in a world where technology was warping interpersonal contact. Those issues have not gone away, they’ve gotten stronger and more pressing with the passage of time.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: At Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles
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