Back To the Future: After Half a Century Godard’s Lovingly Restored Sci Fi Classic Alphaville Returns To the Big Screen
One of my favorite genres depicts dystopian sci fi societies, wherein humans fight to be free from futuristic fascism. On the page, George Orwell’s terrifying 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are the greatest exemplars of this type of anti-totalitarian tale in tomorrowland. But for my money (or whatever means of currency they’ll use in years to come), arguably the greatest interpretation of dystopia for the silver screen is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 masterpiece Alphaville, which has been lovingly, lushly restored and is being theatrically re-released in all its black and white glory by Rialto Pictures. And almost 50 years later, the prescient Godard’s sci fi classic takes on a whole new dimension as a parable of the NSA national security surveillance state.
The 35-year-old auteur was in fine form when he and renowned cameraman Raoul Coutard shot this low budget take on high tech totalitarianism. When the French New Wave shook world cinema with imaginative, stylish pictures, among other things, these filmmakers made their own versions of Hollywood genre movies. Godard’s first feature, 1960’s Breathless -- with cinematography by Coutard and based on a story by Francois Truffaut -- took on the conventions of Film Noir, as did the second feature Truffaut directed, Shoot the Piano Player, made that same year. In 1964’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Jacques Demy made an MGM-like movie musical.
In 1965 the visionary Godard -- who expressed the most filmic, formalistic verve of the Nouvelle Vague’s cineastes, with the possible exception of AlainResnais -- cinematically synthesized (or, perhaps we should say “cin-thesized”) Film Noir, espionage movies and science fiction with Alphaville -- and in the process rendered a potent political work of art presaging his revolutionary agitprop.
Alphaville’s alpha male is portrayed by L.A.-born actor Eddie Constantine, who reprised the role he was noted for in French films: Lemmy Caution, a two-fisted, tough guy secret agent and/or detective in movies such as the 1950s flicks This Man is Dangerous and Dames Get Along (in 1991 Constantine teamed up with Godard again for his final outing as Lemmy in Germany Year 90 Nine Zero). But in Alphaville, wearing a Bogie-like trench coat and fedora, Lemmy is thrust into a dystopian future where the despotic state is ruled by the omnivorous, omniscient Alpha 60, which has an eerily disembodied voice, decades before the coming of Siri. Alpha 60 is the cinema’s spookiest computer this side of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL in that other sci fi masterpiece, 1968’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. As secret agent 003, Lemmy goes undercover, posing when he enters Alphaville from the “Outlands” as a reporter for the Figaro Pravda newspaper named Ivan Johnson (while Lyndon Johnson was U.S. president).
Godard’s wordplay throughout is tellingly droll and Orwellian: Alphaville is on “Oceanic” time, a reference to 1984, as is the futuristic city-state’s “Ministry of Dissuasions”; the close-up of an elevator button reads “SS” -- a play on the French word for basement (“sous-sol”), clearly a nod to the Nazis’ secret police -- and Alpha 60’s mastermind is the über-scientist Prof. Leonard von Braun, aka “Nosferatu”, obvious references to both the Nazi rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who went on to work for the postwar U.S. space program, as well as to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist Dracula classic.
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Lemmy gets mixed up with von Braun’s daughter Natasha, who is charmingly played by Anna Karina. (Richard Brody’s Godard biography Everything Is Cinema contains insightful comments on how the film reflected Godard’s then-recent divorce from Karina, and how he projected himself into the Lemmy Caution character. Interestingly, Natasha’s father is always seen wearing Godard-like sunglasses, the director’s trademark facial accoutrement.) Although according to some critics Natasha is assigned to Lemmy as a “Seductress, Third Class” (look for character actor Akim Tamiroff cavorting with another Seductress in a cameo), her dialogue suggests that Natasha is quite innocent and naïve, perhaps even virginal.
At least when it comes to the notion of love, which Natasha claims she does not know the meaning of. Indeed, love is the animating force of this struggle against a computerized tyranny where “logic” dictates human behavior at the expense of “conscience” and “passion.” Beneath Lemmy’s brawny private eye persona lurks an idealistic romantic. So like Winston Smith and Julia in 1984,Lemmy and Natasha couple up and resist the authoritarian Alpha 60, that Big Brother-like computer, which attempts to reign over a “technocracy, like ants and termites.” But Lemmy and Natasha are all-too-human and there’s a nearly rapturous scene when they discover and express their love for one another, which was quite avant-garde for 1965 and remains rather lyrical, even poetic. One could make a legitimate case for Lemmy and Natasha taking their place alongside Romeo and Juliet, their 20th century counterparts Tony and Maria, and Porgy and Bess, as two of Western culture’s great lovers.
Alphaville is full of Godard’s signature style and leitmotifs -- rapidly cut montages, pictorial panache (check out the cleverly lensed scenes wherein Lemmy gets the hell beaten out of him in an elevator), Paul Misraki’s Noirish soundtrack, the use of written words (as with Orwell the importance of words and their meanings is key here; Godard even compares the dictionary to the Bible). And, but of course, no Godardian film would be complete without the auteur’s pseudo-philosophical musings (which detractors contend became rantings and ravings) of a vital, dissenting, visionary voice pleading for love, conscience and poetry in our ever-increasingly regimented, mechanized world. In Alphaville Godard arguably prophesized the advent of the National Security Agency’s techno super-state half a century before Mssr. Snowden bravely blew the whistle.
Many believe that after his New Wave phase Godard went off the rails, making totally incomprehensible pictures. The poor movie maestro must have heard this phrase even more than Woody Allen: “I like your films -- especially the early ones.” Be that as it may, while Godard remains a cinematic éminence grise still creating screen enigmas from his perch in Switzerland, Alphaville was made when the New Wave’s enfant terrible was near the top of his game. It is a highly entertaining love story, a sci fi Film Noir literally about man (and woman!) against the machine.
Alphaville opens at the L.A. repertory cinema the Nuart on April 25 and this newly restored version is being theatrically released at arthouses across America through July. All I can say is, half a century later: Welcome back, Jean-Luc! And from Alpha 60 to the NSA, fight the power!
Eddie (not Constantine!) Rampell
The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell is “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).