by Allan Fish
(France 1965 98m) DVD1/2
Aka. Alphaville, une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution
p André Michelin d/w Jean-Luc Godard ph Raoul Coutard ed Agnes Guillemot m Paul Mizraki, Michel Legrand art Bernard Evein
Eddie Constantine (Lemmy Caution/Ivan Johnson), Anna Karina (Natasha Von Braun), Akim Tamiroff (Henri Dickson), Howard Vernon (Professor Von Braun/Leonard Nosferatu), Laszlo Szabo, Michel Delahaye, Valerie Boisgel, Christa Lang, Jean-André Fieschi, Jean-Louis Comolli, Jean-Pierre Léaud,
Of all Godard’s classics of the 1960s, surely Alphaville is the daftest. And yet, as you try to laugh at one scene or another you find yourself inexplicably unable to do so. It’s a strange feeling whereby what seems almost a spoof of sci-fi at its most pretentious manages, in its borderline flippancy, to capture the essence of the Kafka and Orwell nightmare. For 1954 it may be 1965, and where in Oceania language was being redefined and shrunk till it lost all of its wonderful ambiguity, so in Alphaville it’s done by replacing the Gideon bibles with dictionaries, still calling them bibles, but reprinting each new edition with even less words than before. Who needs such words as tenderness or Robin Redbreast? Indeed, who even needs colour at all?
So Lemmy Caution goes to Alphaville under the soubriquet of Ivan Johnson in search of the missing Henri Dickson. He finds him, briefly, but also finds that Alphaville is the nerve centre of a society intent on removing all essences of humanity. Human beings effectively turned into subservient androids. Questions such as ‘why’ become reasons such as ‘because’ and everywhere else is the ‘Outer Countries’.
While the influence of Huxley and Orwell are obvious, it has a cinematic ancestry too in the work of Jean Cocteau, whether in the throwaway mention of light – which we can read as the projector light – equating to poetry, but also in the final act of the people staggering through corridors and along walls like the travellers through Cocteau’s rubble-strewn underworld. Slogans and metaphors capture its essence – Civilisation of Light – each as coldly meaningless as the other. We recall the assassinations, or executions as society deems them, of people guilty of acting illogically – crying at the death of a spouse – effectively walking the plank of a swimming baths springboard, being shot, then chased after and finished off by a bevy of beauties in soulless white bathing suits. What is conscience, one of the citizens of Alphaville asks, and one is left with thoughts of Jiminy Cricket mounting that springboard, taking the bullets and being chased after by Ariel’s sister mermaids. (Disney’s Alphaville, there’s a thought.) Yet it’s the seriousness behind these apparently comic situations – the executions are pure Python several years early – that makes them all the more powerful.
In the end Alphaville is sci-fi-less sci-fi, haunted by the spectre of Alpha 60, the disembodied croaky voice who is equal parts Wizard of the Emerald City, Big Brother and Face of Bo. Like Marker’s La Jétée it gets into your mind, its imagery, moving rather than still this time, haunts you as one might be haunted by 1930s newsreels about the rise of fascism. A Nosferatu here, a Heisenberg or Von Braun there, the names evoke a nuclear winter, and the negative exposure that creeps in periodically like draining blood only adds to the feeling. The score by Misraki is at once monotone and magnificent, while Coutard’s shooting of the soulless modern architecture of 1960s Paris (Yoshida surely saw it before making Heroic Purgatory) evokes a world where people have started just playing their parts and living is a concept long since extinct. Léaud appears as if running between film sets as a breakfast waiter, Tamiroff croaks it while trying to get it up with a third class seductress he dreams is Marie Antoinette, while Karina is very touching as Natacha, antecedent to Scott’s replicants, a copy of Paul Eluard swapped for a tinfoil unicorn. And at the centre, wandering through this hell, Constantine, with that face that doesn’t so much need a make-up brush as a pointing trowel.