Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

March 31, 2009

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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.

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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.

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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

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Made in U.S.A. (1966)

March 9, 2009

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During this film the phrases “a Disney film with Humphrey Bogart” and “a Disney film with blood” are used.  And you can see what is meant by that.  This is super-stylish and, like all of Jean-Luc Godard’s finest films, mixes the personal and the political into a simple yet complex take on Film Noir.  The simple yet complex theme is evident in the dialogue as well as the construction of the film.

Godard’s work at this point seems far more overtly political than his earlier films and is almost an expression of his doubts and uncertainties with regard to left wing politics and how they can be reconciled with contemporary society.  There are overtly political visuals (the grafittied- there’s no right way to spell that is there?-  phrase Liberté gets machine-gunned) and dialogue (political tracts recounted by tape recorder as a clue in the case).  As an expression of what was happening in the world in general and France in particular (the Paris student riots were about two years away) Made in U.S.A. shows Godard to be both a product of and a leader of his times.

And it is, of course, an homage to the American B-movies that Godard references throughout.  If not made, this film was certainly conceived in the USA- if a country can also be a state of mind and I’m not getting all up my own pseudy arse with this!  The film features Anna Karina tracking down the murderer of her ex-lover.  The murder was the result of his involvement in or at least knowledge of a political assassination.  Karina, as was mentioned above, is a contemporary version of Bogart’s noir persona- uncompromising, hard-headed and thoughtful.  She is being tracked by a criminal and his callow, hapless accomplice (much like Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon).  As far as a linear plot goes, that’s your lot.  Non-linear plot elements are the constant pop-culture allusions, the tape-recorded monologues on the French political situation and a discussion on perspectives and how they shape our view of the world.

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Being a Godard film, of course, it looks marvellous- the constant juxtaposition of stark white internal scenes with bright primary colours, the beautifully lit exteriors which seem so fresh, the long fixed-lens close-ups, the reflections of Karina barely visible in a photograph frame behind the head of the subject, the twins in the gymnasium- his visual inventiveness is indefatigable.  And it sounds marvellous, with real-life intervening in the form of sirens, telephone rings and overhead planes.  The influence of all of this on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films is obvious (the basic storyline, Karina’s appearance, the name hidden by a sound effects etc) and is further testimony to the power of the film to extend beyond itself and take on an importance beyond merely being a piece of cinematic art.  There is a scene where Karina and László Szabó sit down and describe what happens in the next part of the film rather than acting it out- this constant deconstruction of the cinematic myth (the dialogue constantly talks about movie scenes, characters, events, the mise-en-scène– hell even the characters are named after actors or directors) serves to remind us that Godard is making statements that go beyond the simplistic storyline.  The story is not what the film says, it is merely a vehicle to express the director’s statement.  Has the auteur theory ever been supported in so stark and blatant a way?

This is a film that needs to be seen and re-seen for things to make sense.  At present it’s a 7/10 but that should improve as the references become clearer with further viewings.  Of course, the whole thing could be a vacant pop-culture act of pretension, but I don’t believe so.

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À Bout de Souffle (1960)

February 16, 2009

The intention I have behind these notes is to remind myself what I loved and hated and didn’t understand and wanted to remember about these films.  As such, this note is superfluous- I love this film and know it frame by frame.  Funny how a film that has been imitated to death and is almost fifty years old can still seem fresh and invigorating.  Unlike most of the films I watch, I’ve read a bit about this one.  I know, for example, that the spliced sequences on the Champs, in the taxi, in the bedroom, on the ride into Paris were a financially-motivated innovation.  I know that the sirens which drown out dialogue were retained to avoid wasting film.  It doesn’t matter, though, they work as representations of reality and as artistic statements.  The whole thing works. 

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Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo)’s opening line “After all, I’m an arsehole” sets the tone beautifully.  From there he embarks on a crime-spree that is motivated neither by malice nor desperation, but because it is his default setting.  He is immune to remorse.  From car theft to extortion to mugging to the murder of a policeman he doesn’t hesitate and doesn’t bat an eyelid.  He is amoral and thoroughly ambivalent to society moving instinctively according to his code “informers inform, burglars burgle, murders murder, lovers love”.  Indeed he even considers the love he has for Jean Seberg’s Patricia to be something to regret.  He is just a mixed-up kid, aping Bogart and playing at life.  To Michel we are what we are by nature and we simply have to follow our course without deviation, to him it is that simple.  He speaks of his love for and disdain for France and the French and Americans and other things, but the words ring hollow.  Belmondo speaks these sentences whilst emoting others (he really gets behind “never use the brakes.  As old man Bugatti used to say ‘I build cars to run not to stop” and you can see that ‘run not stop’ ethos lives within him throughout the film).  When Godard positions him in front of a poster that shouts ‘live dangerously until the end’, Michel’s raison d’être is encapsulated in a moment.

Building the film around a character as reprehensible as Michel Poiccard (strip away Belmondo’s charm and what’s left isn’t pretty) would have made for a very difficult and perhaps shallow viewing experience- indeed the storyline can probably be comprehensively summarised in a sentence.  This is why Patricia is so important.  She too is a mixed-up kid, she too has a kind of dubious morality and she too offers platitudes and opinions without conviction, but she is redeemable and fundamentally good whereas Michel is fundamentally rotten.  Her emotional wrangling (“I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m free or free because I am unhappy”) is an important counterpoint to Michel’s animal instinctiveness.  Her role is also important as it permits Godard to question such things as the female role (French feminism at this time was a vital political force), infatuation, mortality, love and sensuality and- perhaps most importantly- predestination and happiness.  On a philosphical basis, there is a tremendous amount in À Bout de Souffle to consider.

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The thing which I love about À Bout de Souffle probably more than any other film, though, is its cool.  I know that it’s childish to label something cool or even to love something because you think it’s cool but I don’t care- maybe I’m just a mixed-up kid too!  The look of the film whether by pragmatic inspiration or design is, there’s no other word for it, breathtaking.  Jim Jarmusch- who I love dearly- built a career on this stuff.  The whole film is shot on a hand-held and allows Godard and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard (the only men involved in shooting the film) to focus in on faces and follow them around- there is a marvellous scene in the Travel Agents as they firstly follow Michel as he approached the desk, then Michel and Tolmatchoff (Richard Balducci), then Michel again and as he leaves we follow the arriving Detectives as they repeat his journey just a step behind him.  The film also utilises high-angle shots from rooftops and balconies showing Michel and Patricia in the context of the busy city.  Their story is at once immediate and yet one of many thousands of stories.  Another aspect of the spliced scenes is the insistent urgency that they give the story, along with the great jazzy soundtrack- and in particular the piano/trumpet refrain- by Martial Solal, a real zest and vigour.

I honestly can’t speak highly of this film, I love it in more ways than my paltry descriptive powers will allow me to express.  It means the world to me.  10/10.

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