Classic Review: Alphaville

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A logically opaque, madcap, pretentious, and hilarious genre mashup.

Review:  To a geek like me, combining deconstructed film noir with a vague science fiction dystopia makes for a beguiling premise.  After hearing about ‘Alphaville’ and reading a little about it via the Criterion Collection, I made it my first DVD rental through Netflix, expecting an equally exciting product.  Of course, I had overlooked that this is an art film, and moreover it is quite insane.  This means it ended up even better than I expected.

‘Alphaville’ moves swiftly from episode to episode, slapping random ideas together like an optimistic French philosopher who is both drunk and convinced that ‘Axe Cop‘ is the next big thing in serious literature.  That’s hyperbole, yeah, and it’s cathartic to say it.  The point being, it seems the filmmakers weren’t concerned with making the premise seem credible, but they were using it as an excuse to indulge in various kinds of madness.  “Tangent” is the word of the day.  It’s possible that Godard did find reason for the randomness, however, as the story, in its most vanilla form, could be described as the man of passion (viva la France!) versus the cold logical computer society of tomorrow.  A stylistic rebellion against narrative sense, perhaps?

The protagonist, Lemmy Caution, a character borrowed from detective novels and films set in an ostensibly more realistic time and place, is summarily transposed, with all his noir tendencies, into the Huxleyian future city of the film’s title.  In this setting, the sheer arbitrary nature of his behavior clashes directly with the computer that nigh-intangibly controls everything.  It’s like an episode of classic ‘Star Trek’ — the episode ‘Return of the Archons‘ comes to mind — only instead of Bill Shatner lasering zombies we have Eddie Constantine shooting holes in centerfolds.

The parallels between ‘Alphaville’ and the previously mentioned ‘Return of the Archons’ are actually pretty striking, as are the differences.  Both involve men on a mission, looking for missing persons in a computer-controlled, soulless society.  Unlike the Enterprise crew, who wander only because they don’t know where to start, Lemmy Caution does whatever the hell he wants, despite having a clear objective from the get go.  The film’s plotting is startlingly opaque.  If Lemmy has a grand plan, he doesn’t share it, to my recollection.  He’s there to find a couple of people and blow up Alpha 60, the monstrous computer, preventing Alphaville’s influence from infecting other “galaxies”.  This being an art film, Lemmy’s solution isn’t bombs or bullets, but unbearable love poetry.  It’s similar to James Kirk’s tactic of talking alien intelligences to death, with the writer’s naked ideas as the ultimate weapon.

The best way to digest this film is as a comedy, a guilty pleasure packed with odd moments.  Judging by its creator’s pedigree, it’s probably not unintentional.  It’s not a bad film.  In fact, it’s rather brilliant, in a quirky way.  It deserves a bigger cult audience than it has accumulated, especially in light of substantially better, relatively recent sci-fi dystopia film noir such as ‘Brazil’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Dark City’ and ‘Minority Report’.  They all owe an artistic debt to this wonderfully off-kilter classic.

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