It’s mad this. I love it, but I’m aware of how mad it is. Veteran B-Movie actor Eddie Constantine reprises a regular role as private detective Lemmy Caution in a Jean-Luc Godard film set in the future. Bonkers. Brilliant.
As with any film Godard makes the emphasis is very much on realism. And so you have a sci-fi film noir thriller set in a dystopian future (is there any kind of future in the movies?) which is filmed in mid-60s Paris featuring actors wearing contemporary clothing and driving contemporary cars. In fact, if it weren’t for the dialogue you would have no idea that this was set in the future. It could almost be a French version of What’s Up Tiger Lily? And yet, it is very realistic because Godard chose the most futuristic parts of Paris and Coutard shot them in such a way that it works. We’re not talking a Buck Rodgers future here but a terrifying vision of a very real, very near future. The film begins by telling the viewer that it is “24.17 Oceanic Time” which will really, really strike a chord with anyone who has read Orwell’s contribution to the genre 1984. Or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And those source materials are a pretty important touchstone for the film referenced throughout- with the omniscient central government, dehumanised population and deliberate shrinking of the language. It is telling for me that Godard’s sci-fi film is the antithesis of the gaudy, style-over-substance, effects and costume-heavy movies which dominate the genre. Strip away the trappings, he is saying, and there must be more to the film than mere window-dressing. He must have hated the Hollywood of the last three decades.
The film opens with Lemmy Caution arriving in Alphaville under the assumed identity of a newspaper reporter from Figaro-Pravda (that is simply delicious by the way). The wonderful Misraki B-movie soundtrack accompany Caution as he enters an Alphaville hotel, checks in, gets the lift to his floor, negotiates the winding corridoors and arrives at his room. This is all achieved with one tracking shot including the lift sequence (the camera goes up in one glass elevator, Caution in another alongside it) it takes four minutes in full. Amazing. I can’t emphasise that enough.
Alphaville is a harsh, cold, loveless and remorseless place. Five years on from À Bout de Souffle,which was in part a love letter to the city of Paris, Godard’s view appears to have completely changed. Caution’s disdain for Alphaville simply gives voice to Godard’s for Paris: “Everything weird is ‘normal’ in this damn town” he says at one point. What Paris is and what it is becoming informs much of the movie thematically. This also makes Constantine’s uncomfortable performance work really well, he isn’t a natural or polished and his clunky accented delivery and hesitant body language is perfect for the role of discomfited outsider. He is taking the whole thing super-seriously as a spy thriller and seemingly ignoring the philosophical or futuristic bits that he doesn’t quite get. It’s a great case of a Director using an actor brilliantly in spite of the actors limitations, I love Eddie Constantine in this (and, in the interests of balance, I should say that he also does a pretty good job in The Long Good Friday). Godard makes the most of Constantine, his ‘interesting’ face and world-weary manner- he is in almost every shot, certainly every scene.
And yet he isn’t the key figure in the film. The film is, in many ways, a love letter to Anna Karina. From the first moment that she appears- accompanied by a beautiful score for strings and lit with great sensitivity- she is objectified as being of almost preternatural beauty. Her performance justifies this treatment too, she is sensational in this. The moment at the climax of the film where she says for the first time and with a new understanding of the gravity of her words “I love you” is one of those heart-meltingly rare cinema moments that stay with you. She speaks as if these are the first words she has ever said, the music swells, fin. Truly beautiful.
Love is one of the things which can save Alphaville. During the execution scene- a man is executed for acting illogically- he wept when his wife died, his final words are: “Listen to me normal ones! We see a truth that you no longer see. A truth that says the essence of man is love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice. Everything else is an obstacle put up by your blind progress and ignorance!”. The execution itself is odd (the prisoners are shot by firing squad beside a swimming pool and retrieved by synchronised swimmers who are applauded wildly by spectators) and this bizarre method is in keeping with the bizarre reason for the execution. Godard is mocking the concept (and indeed the conceit) of this future. He goes further in the following scenes and reveals that in the face of dehumanisation, poetry is the answer. When Alphaville’s super computer (and by the way Alphaville’s super computer has a voice like a frog vomiting) interrogates Lemmy Caution, it asks “do you know what turns darkness into light?” to which he responds poetry. And reading a book of the poet Éluard’s poetry entitled ‘The Capital of Pain’ (presumably chosen for the title as much as the content) reawakens the humanity within Karina’s character. Yet it is here that the film falters to a degree, as with all of Godard’s work, there is a heavy philosophical element and the longer-than-it-seems sequence on anti-linguistic theory (“unless words change their meanings and meanings change their words”- that kind of stuff) is a step that the film could really do without. The film isn’t serious enough to do such conceits justice- that’s my feeling anyway.
Aside from that interlude (which I would probably have tolerated much better if I hadn’t been too tired to understand it all) this is typical Godard, he doesn’t piss about with unnecessary pauses, he just puts relevant scenes and events on screen in an innovative way subverting everything which has gone before. He even depicts a fight in still photos to avoid unnecessary and untidy camerawork. A film about the resurrection of tenderness and of love. 8/10