Tuesday, July 31, 2007

alphaville, by jean-luc godard

For the third week of our film club, Skunkcabbage and I moved on along the Godard axis, this time watching Alphavile (1965), Godard's take on science fiction.

Like Band of Outsiders, which we watched last week, Alphaville gets a lot of mileage out of decontextualizing and repurposing noir conventions. Take a look at our star, tough-guy actor Eddie Constantine playing detective Lemmy Caution, seen here skulking around, you know, detecting things:

The central conceit of Alphaville is taking this type of hard-boiled figure and placing him in a science fiction context, specifically the context of the futuristic dystopia. Alphaville is a city governed by a computer, Alpha 60, who essentially makes all its decisions rationally, based on probability-matrices. This crushes the human spark in the usual dystopian fashion, although Godard's visualization of it is at times striking:

Anna Karina returns in this film, this time playing Natasha Von Braun, daughter of a prominent scientist. She's essentially the science-fiction version of the character she plays in Band of Outsiders: instead of being a cute French schoolgirl who is naive about sexuality, here she's the dystopian lost girl, who needs to be taught to love in a society that's forgotten the meaning of the word, yadda yadda yadda:

All of feels a little bit standard, which is part of the point—since the material feels so familiar, Godard can sketch it quite economically and rely on us to fill in the gaps. This extends to the entire setting, which makes no effort to be especially futuristic, but simply constitutes itself by using suitably dystopian environments selected from the contemporary city, trusting that we'll simply imagine them as science-fictional. Works pretty well; here's the building where the authorities execute free thinkers:

Like in Band of Outsiders, the effect of all this economy is that it opens up the film for digressions. The digressions are a little bit less successful here: whereas in Band the digressive material is mostly antic horseplay (which chafes interestingly against the central crime plot), the digressive material here is more lyrical and experimental. I tend to like lyrical and experimental, but the experimental material here is primarily a meditation on the value of love, and the use of radical techniques to make a point that's not especially radical just isn't that interesting.

Elsewhere, the film proves itself to be smarter than that. There are various moments where we see that Godard's interest in thinking actively about the conventions of filmic narrative is beginning to broaden into an interest in thinking actively about the conventions of language in general: the phrase "I'm very well. Thank you so much" is uttered repeatedly by characters in the film, never in response to an actual inquiry about someone's well being (reminding me of the gifts that are reflexively exchanged in the permanent Christmas of Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985)).

It's a sly commentary on the way that convention can override meaning, only mildly undercut by the moment, late in the film, when Natasha struggles to remember the words "I love you." When she finally manages to speak the phrase, it's clearly seen as a triumphant moment—but certainly "I love you," just like "Thank you so much," is a phrase that has the risk of being spoken automatically, emptily.

Skunkcabbage's write-up is here.

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