Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Alphaville

A typically post-modernist approach from filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, with a continual juxtaposition between content and presentation that works amidst a series of experiments established by the contrast between genre (references) and narrative (reflexivity), all used to create an intelligent rumination on the notions of love, individuality, physical expression and the concept of free-will. It is, perhaps more so than any other film of Godard's early "classical" period, representative of the filmmaker's distinctive approach to cinema; as various ideas that are lifted from a variety of different sources are placed against a setting and a subject-matter that is radical and highly atypical in both appearance and approach. This central contrast between the post-war crime thriller set against an exterior of B-movie science-fiction references is illustrated by the casting of Eddie Constantine and the appropriation of the character of "Lemmy Caution", the laconic super-spy of popular French genre serials, including the films La Môme vert de gris (Poison Ivy, 1952) and À toi de faire... mignonne (Your Turn, Darling, 1963), by which the drama and the tension within the narrative is created by a central juxtaposition between these two largely divergent, cinematic worlds.

By taking this character and this particular approach, Godard is able to balance the cinematic with the philosophical, underlining not just the film's central ideology, but the filmmaker's creative intent. It also allows Godard the room to examine the various socio-political concerns that had been developing in his work over the preceding years; with the characteristics of dystopian science-fiction and its obvious references to the themes of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1948) and Huxley's Brave New World (published in 1932) being used to draw attention to the absurdities of the state of the world, regardless of the past, present or future, where the general principals of liberty, equality and fraternity are seemingly threatened by a dominant culture of government manipulation, censorship and control. So, we have the world of Alphaville turned into a literal machine, unfeeling and unresponsive; where the future is a reflection of the past and the bible has been replaced by the dictionary. Into this world, Godard gives us the familiar presentation of the hero as reporter, bringing to mind the central character from his earliest political film La Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1963), where the character must document the proceedings as he is simultaneously embroiled within them; creating a further self-reflexive rhetoric between the film, the viewer and the character himself.


Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965:

[Theme: the hero as reporter; the ghost in the machine]



[Theme: the death of expression]




The presentation of the character, when combined with Godard's approach to the narrative, allows for the bold and imaginative subversion of the various codes and conventions of the film noir genre - and, in particular, the kind of lurid, kiss-kiss bang-bang style of storytelling that the character of Lemmy Caution originated from - to create the perfect vehicle for the filmmaker to experiment with this combination of sound and image, character and convention. In keeping with this, the film becomes as much about the director's experiments with the medium as it is about the presentation of the plot; with the use of sound and music and the way in which these devises are juxtaposed against the images in order to suggest moments of drama, romance, tension and dread (though never as we would normally expect them). In this respect the film is constantly reminding us of the presence of the filmmaker; with the stamp of authorial control present in every aspect of the production, from the bold use of locations, keen eye for fashion and general approach to the manufacture of the images conspiring to demystify the more fantastical or escapist elements of the film, though never to the extent of Godard's subsequent, more analytical works.

Regardless of such creative or thematic experiments, the film works because the narrative is strong enough and enigmatic enough to draw us in; beguiling us with that unconventional view of the future and the presentation of the character himself - a pulp fiction hero for a science fiction age. The contrast works perfectly, with the tone and approach of Godard being perfectly suggested from the very first scene, with the introduction to Caution as a shadowy figure, steeped in the visual iconography of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, as he sits slouched in the driver's seat of his Ford Galaxie, with only the vaguest sense of his countenance illuminated by the flare of his cigarette. It's a classic film noir moment, illustrating Godard's knowledge of the codes and conventions of the sub-genre, perfectly contrasted by the science-fiction aspect of the story and the more personal ideas about freedom of expression, love and free-will. This notion is also expressed through the very careful characterisation of Anna Karina as the enigmatic Natasha Von Braun, who's cold, calculated (seemingly) all-knowing quality is contrasted perfectly by the earthiness and macho bravado of Caution; showing something of an obvious influence on the thematic subtext of director Ridley Scott's subsequent Philip K. Dick adaptation, Blade Runner (1982).


Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965:


Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, 1982:


Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965:


The vision of Alphaville is one of highly stylised retro-futurism; a world of concrete and steel, glass and cold neon, filmed on the streets of 60s Paris but abstracted perfectly by the influence of the cinéma-vérité approach to the editing and cinematography. Perhaps more than anything, Alphaville is an absolute marvel of abstract design concepts, from the architecture and the fashions, to Godard's fantastic use of composition, framing and physical choreography, all of which stands out within the science-fiction genre for going beyond the usual depiction of vast, glowing metropolises or monsters from outer space. Here, the threat to the human race comes from within; with our freedom compromised by an all-seeing government that conspires to replace our natural instinct for human empathy and emotion with a cold and unfeeling reliance on logic, order and efficiency. Like the concept of "liberty" in the subsequent Made in U.S.A. (1966), itself a fantasy abstraction of genre and convention, the deeper themes established by Godard can be seen as a sharp, satirical comment on the state of France under the still lingering shadow of the President of the French Republic Charles De Gaulle and his arguably dogmatic cultural administrations.


Made in U.S.A. directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1966:


Alphaville directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1965:

[Presentation: windows within windows]



[One of Godard's favourite themes, the selling of sex; an example of the future art of "Alphaville"]




This idea can again be seen in the look and design of the film, which shows us a future that is in decline; grey and dirty, made up of low-rent apartment buildings and industrial locations contrasted by the opulent hotel in which our characters hide out. In this respect, the film is as influential to the science-fiction film as Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was to the western; suggesting the depiction of a world that - although a fantasy/recreation for the audience - is a living, breathing environment for its characters. It also ties into the maxim of the Alpha 60 computer; the idea that "no one will ever live in the past... or the future". Both concepts exist within the same circle, like life and death. I'd argue that it is as influential on the genre as Scott's aforementioned Blade Runner, the theatrical release of which stole the ending from Godard's film, as well as the central dynamics between our hero and heroine. For me, it is a much better film than Blade Runner - which is still an admittedly great work - with the more emotional aspects of the characters and the very recognisable ideas and themes woven throughout striking a chord with viewers in a way that they might not necessarily expect.




Of course, it is ironic somewhat that a film about androids and computers turns out to be Godard's most human film of this period; with the relationship between the characters played by Constantine and Karina expressing a very basic need for love and understanding, which is beautifully realised by Godard's cut and paste regard for dialog, which blends poetic and philosophical rumination alongside scientific equations, technological-jargon and the deliberately hard-boiled dialog of Constantine as the archetypical gumshoe Lemmy Caution; the image of Dick Tracy on Mars. So, we have a film that conveys an obvious emotional connection, and yet, remains one of the most purely deconstructive works of the director's career; filled with intelligent ideas quoted from everyone from Borges, Murnau, Bazin and Barthes, amusing word games and visual references to John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), Jean Cocteau's Orpheus (Orphée, 1949) and his shorter work The Blood of a Poet (Le Sang d'un Poete, 1930), Michelangelo Antonioni's celebrated La Notte (The Night, 1961) and L'Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, 1933) respectively.

Godard would return to the themes of Alphaville twice more, firstly in his segment of the collaborative project, Le Plus vieux métier du monde (The Oldest Profession in the World, 1967), called Anticipation, ou l'amour en l'an 2000 (Anticipation, or Love in the year 2000) - in which a business man of the future rejects a prostitute offering only physical gratification for one who talks but does not touch - and then later in the film Germany Year 90 Nine Zero (Allemagne 90 neuf zero, 1991), in which we see a return from Lemmy Caution, this time in the reunited Germany, where East has finally met West. The themes of romance, communication and perception, as well as the central philosophy of the death of expression(ism) are each conveyed by Godard in a way that is immediately recognisable on both an emotional and an intellectual level, combined with that world in which the future is the present, by way of the past, and where "everything has been said, providing words don't change their meaning... or meanings their words". It should, above all else, be seen as one of the defining films of Godard's early career, showing the wit, intelligence, imagination and creative flare that carved out his reputation as one of the most important filmmakers of the post-war era.