film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Alphaville (1965)

So I had to watch this film twice to figure out what in the chicken-fried Judas was going on. I’m still not entirely sure.

I know I’m fond of describing films with humorous mashups, but this Jean-Luc Godard film really is a mashup of sci-fi, French New Wave and film noir. Eddie Constantine is “Lemmy Caution”, a private investigator sent on a case in the city of “Alphaville”. Alphaville is ostensibly governed by the scientist Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon); but in truth, it’s under the control of von Braun’s creation, a vast computer/AI network named “Alpha 60”. Free thought, emotion, and poetry are forbidden, under penalty of death. Caution is meant to first locate Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), another agent on a similar mission who’s gone AWOL, and then to arrest von Braun and destroy Alpha 60.

Sounds like a simple plot, yeah? But that’s the bit it took me two screenings to understand.

Godard depicts everything in Alphaville as just plain odd, with people speaking in repeated non-sequiturs (the phrase “I’m fine, don’t mention it” seems to replace “goodbye” for reasons which are never explained). Criminals are executed during synchronized swimming performances at the public swimming pool. Some of Von Braun’s henchmen try to capture Caution at one point, and they incapacitate him by….holding him at gunpoint and ordering Von Braun’s daughter Natascha (Anna Karina) to tell Caution a shaggy dog story akin to The Duck Song so they could grab him when he laughed at the punch line. Early on, there’s a bit where Caution accompanies Natascha to a lecture on math and allegory given by Alpha 60, but he leaves early to go wait in the lobby – and I laughed when he later told Natascha “I left because I couldn’t understand what they were talking about”, since I felt exactly the same way.

It’s all clearly meant to mean something; “Alpha 60” is constantly making heady-sounding pronouncements (many of them quotes from the poet Jorge Luis Borges), Caution frequently muses how “dead” many of Alphaville’s citizens look, and all of the “criminals” in the execution scene have been guilty of displaying some kind of emotion. Godard uses film noir tropes a lot – but felt like a sort of cargo-cult use, invoking them just for the sake of doing so (Caution is even reading from a copy of The Big Sleep in one scene). Caution soon makes Natascha a third mission for himself, proclaiming he is in love with her and urging her to break free of Alpha 60’s control and try to feel something. There’s a lengthy sequence in which Natascha stares into the camera as Caution circles her, stroking her face or caressing her hair, periodically stopping to stare into the camera himself so she can return the favor and….make gestures around him; and throughout Caution has a monologue in a voiceover opining about….love and freedom, I think? Or something.

But…honestly, I felt somewhat like this was that Star Trek Next Generation episode where the crew meets a member of a people who speak entirely in allegory and cultural references. If you’re privvy to the references in question, this can work – but if you’re out of the loop, you haven’t a clue what’s happening. I felt like Godard was assuming I would understand all the references he was making – the character “Lemmy Caution” is heralded as if I’d know who that was, in particular – but I was very much out of the loop, so it was thoroughly baffling.

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