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Lemmy Caution, an American private-eye, arrives in Alphaville, a futuristic city on another planet. His very American character is at odds with the city's ruler, an evil scientist named Von Braun, who has outlawed love and self-expression. Written by
Gene Volovich <email@example.com>
If one had to use just one word to sum up Alphaville¸that word would have to be weird. It is a film that constantly challenges our preconceptions, our expectations, and, as a result, manages to be both deeply disturbing and very funny at the same time.
The film begins as what appears to be a pastiche of the American detective movie of the 1950s, but then suddenly takes a dive into the Twilight Zone. What follows is a perplexing 100 minutes of cinema that manages to be classic film noir, imaginative science-fiction, an action-packed and suspenseful thriller and - most surprisingly of all - a very entertaining black comedy, in the mould of Dr Strangeglove. By trying to blend so many contrasting elements, the result could have easily been a disaster. That the films succeeds, and succeeds admirably, is down largely to two factors.
Firstly, Eddy Constantine plays the part of Lemmy Caution, the private detective, throughout with total conviction, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he is playing a complete parody (and a very funny one) of a character he had made his own in the preceding decade. In the 1950s, Constantine played the hard-nosed detective in a series of French films of the traditional American detective genre. It would have been very easy for a lesser actor to ham the part up or downplay the character, but Constantine does neither, and the result is utterly brilliant.
We have a familiar character transposed from a familiar milieu into a parallel universe, where everything appears to be superficially familiar but then is shown to be a distortion of what we see in our own world - a kind of Humphrey Bogart through the Looking Glass. Over and over again, we are surprised at how easily we are tripped up and misled by our own preconceptions. This would not have been possible without a strong central character who is firmly anchored in our world - and Eddy Constantine serves this purpose brilliantly. The fact that he works so well with his co-star, the superb and very stylish Anna Karina, is a bonus.
Secondly, Alphaville's creator, Godard, appears to be at the height of his powers as a director. He shows complete mastery of the revolutionary cinematographic techniques which he thrust onto an unsuspecting world in the early years of the New Wave (the late 1950s). Far more accessible than some of Godard's contemporary films (such as La Chinoise and Weekend), the style is nonetheless distinctive and fresh, somehow giving the film an extra dimension that constantly surprises and entertains. Godard is also responsible for the script, an adaptation of a novel by Peter Cheyney, where he manages, quite cleverly, to draw parallels between the futuristic soulless society of Alphaville and contemporary France. (There are more than a few direct statements to suggest that Godard regards his own country as Alphaville - for example the infamous HLM joke. Godard appears to see France ending up as an isolationist state, seeming to have imperialistic ambitions, with its language under strict state control - not an uncommon caricature of the country in the latter years of the 20th century.)
Popular concerns about the impact of computer technology on society are also exploited by Godard who suggests that widespread dehumanisation and total state control will be the outcome.
Paul Misraki's enigmatic background music adds to the eerie other-wordly atmosphere of the ensemble.
Overall, an amazing film that never ceases to surprise and shock. A dark and very frightening thriller, a comic pastiche of detective films, a love story, a sci-fi movie with a power-mad (and asthmatic) computer... how Godard managed to pull this one off is probably one of the great mysteries of cinema history. Watch, listen, laugh and be amazed.
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