Alphaville – Previewed

Adam Scovell takes a look at Alphaville, Jean-Luc Godard’s noirish tale of man versus machine…

As part of The Language Circle events currently inhabiting the timetable of Urban Strawberry Lunch, the collective are having a special screening of one of the finest French films ever made. Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps better known as one of the mavericks to kick-start the French New Wave film movement, but his 1965 film Alphaville is more than just an exercise in experimental filmmaking.

Godard’s 1960 breakthrough film Breathless forged a style of film that would traverse genres, and Alphaville is the jump-cut infused science fiction product of this heady mixture. A dystopian planet of a futuristic, alternative present, Alphaville is run by an evil computer and scientist Professor Von Braun. Love is banned, as are all forms of self-expression.

The full name of the film, Alphaville, une Etrange aventure de Lemmy Caution sheds some light on the truth behind the narrative. We follow Lemmy Caution, an American secret agent (who injects a serious dose of noir in to proceedings), has been sent to the planet to understand what’s happening there.

Central to the film’s message is the fight for individualism, and against oppression by ‘machine’ rule. Like the esoteric, more academic cousin of James Cameron’s The Terminator, but with visuals more in line with the metaphorical than the action packed, Alphaville rails against the new hierarchy of control. Eddie Constantine plays the brilliantly subdued Caution, who oozes sixties French style with his mac, sharp suit and hat. Playing opposite him is Godard’s wife of the time, Anna Karina, who again is wonderfully stylish; all dark brooding looks, smoky eyes and shoulder length bob.

The science fiction elements are played down, more matter of fact than pulp and using present day tools, designs and visuals (it was shot on location in Paris) to represent the future has meant that the film has a timeless quality. The interplanetary train that brings Caution to the planet is a simple metro train that wouldn’t look out of place in his Earth-set Breathless.

An aspect of the film rarely talked about is its wonderful score. Mixing jazz instrumentation with string elements, it too has a timeless feel, and contributes to the film dating far more successfully than depictions of the future from other eras, most notably the 1980s. The idea of Godard’s film trying to resist looking like other films (in line with Francois Truffaut’s and Claude Chabrol’s auteur theory) adds further to its narrative of individualism against blind conformity, Godard opting to use the metaphor of physical violence to get this message across.

Lemmy – who seems to be fighting everyone who he meets – doesn’t fit into the world of Alphaville, in much the same way Godard stuck out on the film scene. Having just checked into his hotel, he’s already physically fighting people off with fists and guns in a rather comedic scene in his hotel room, and is annoyed when a woman (a prostitute, complete with code on her neck) attempts to seduce him, inducing the snap of “I’m old enough to find my own woman”.

One of the more cerebral films in the science fiction canon, Alphaville is a breath of fresh air in these days of big blockbuster sci-fi such as Prometheus. Determined to smuggle its moral message in a coat of meta sci-fi, it makes for both entertaining and thought provoking viewing.

Adam Scovell

Alphaville screens Saturday the 14th of July 9pm @ St Luke’s Church, Bold Place Minimum donation of £2.

Posted on 11/07/2012 by thedoublenegative