Jean-Luc Godard, the director of today’s film up for discussion, is not one of the captains of the starship Enterprise. If you consider yourself a movie buff and you don’t know who Godard is, then you don’t really love movies. Along with Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and others, Godard was a part of the “nouvelle vague,” which consisted of several former film critics who started making movies themselves. These “New Wave” directors, as they came to be known internationally, revitalized not only French cinema but also world cinema when two of their films, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Godard’s Breathless, became internationally popular when released.
While I took to the films of Truffaut immediately, I’ve been a little slower coming around to Godard’s work. I was exposed to both filmmakers while in college, but once I saw Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, I began actively seeking out his films. Godard’s Breathless, while interesting, didn’t grab me emotionally as did Truffaut’s work. So, over the years, I’ve seen almost all of Truffaut’s films, while I’ve pretty much ignored Godard’s work. Until now.
I’ll admit it–I’ve been sort of dreading watching Alphaville, simply because it sounded like a pretty stupid idea to me–a science-fiction film without any of the trappings of a science-fiction film. In a nutshell, the plot concerns Lemmy Caution, a detective sent from “the Outlands” to Alphaville to either bring back or kill Dr. Nosferatu, who invented the mega-computer Alpha 60 and who now goes by the name of Dr. Vonbraun. If Vonbraun is not neutralized, intergalactic war will break out. Unfortunately, Caution makes the very film noir-ish mistake of falling in love with his target’s daughter, Natasha.
So how did Caution get to Alphaville? By driving his car (a Ford Galaxy, naturally) there. And, rather than having the reaction that I expected to have (which I felt would involve a lot of eye-rolling and several “oh, come on!”s)…I found it to be pretty clever. And as the film wore on, I found myself buying into this goofy notion of Paris as another planet. What I thought would be pretentious as all get-out was actually wonderfully playful. When Caution needs to make a telecommunication (“Galaxy or local?” the counter-girl asks), he goes to an area with a sign that clearly says “telephones.”
Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution has about him a bit of the world-weary resignation that Bill Murray seems to bring to his recent roles, and Anna Karina is just gorgeous. Everyone walks around eating pills, except for Lemmy–he drinks whiskey, as any good detective would. He also seems to have a limitless supply of bullets and flashbulbs. The score by Paul Misraki is at once both incredibly clichéd and spot-on perfect. And for me, the best surprise is a cameo appearance by Jean-Pierre Leaud, star of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Stolen Kisses, as the room-service waiter.
I’m glad that I can now say that I’ve seen Alphaville. Seeing it certainly makes me want to explore more of Godard’s work. It’s not for everyone, however–if you’re one of those people who denigrate low-budget movies by loudly proclaiming “That’s so fake…” whenever a special effect isn’t quite up to snuff, then you should consider yourself warned to stay far, far away from it. However, if you’ve got an open mind and you really love movies, you should find a lot to enjoy in Alphaville.
I couldn’t find a trailer in English for Alphaville anywhere on the web, but I did find several clips from the film on YouTube. Here’s one in which Lemmy Caution is questioned by Alpha 60, the super-computer–enjoy!