All due respect to Jim Jarmusch, Jonathan Glazer, Wes Anderson and any other filmmaker who has a worthwhile movie out right now, but there really is no better use of your time and moviegoing dollar in L.A. this week than the new restoration of Alphaville, playing at the Nuart in West L.A. now through Thursday, May 1st.
There are many reasons to see Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 marvel on the big screen, chief among them: the retro-futuristic B&W cinematography is beautiful to look at, even by Godard and DP Raoul Coutard’s standards; the movie is the proverbial ripping yarn, one that’s also funny and romantic; and at 49 years old, the film is more uncannily prescient than ever.
Godard’s movie follows intergalactic detective Lemmy Caution (played by the American-born Eddie Constantine — movies have never had a more one-of-a-kind leading man) as he infiltrates the city of Alphaville, the capital of a soulless society ruled by the computer Alpha 60. This quasi-fascistic world is no place for a rugged individualist like Caution; emotions are strictly regulated and bizarre public executions are commonplace. Caution’s mission is to kidnap or kill the inventor of Alpha 60, Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon, on a rare break from his many years of toil in Jess Franco‘s cinematic sweatshop).
This being among other things a private-dick story, things get complicated when tough-guy Caution meets a dame — von Braun’s daughter Natasha (the one and only Anna Karina, of course), who has some conflicts of her own, as her penchant for poetry, verboten in this technocratic system, suggests. One of the movie’s high points comes when Natasha recites from Paul Eluard over a montage that’s among the most justly celebrated sequences in Godard’s work.
Fascinating on a visual level alone, Alphaville draws upon comic strips and decades of pulp fiction (specifically, American noir flicks), but fuses those sources with an elegant but icy International style, a corporate aesthetic of sleek offices and hotels that shows no trace of history or regional character. (Godard’s original title for the movie was Tarzan vs. IBM.) The movie’s sound design features the bizarre flourish of the “voice” of Alpha 66 — actually that of a man whose vocal cords had been shot away, speaking from his diaphragm.
Alphaville was an inspired, absurdist comment on its mid-1960s present, with the city of Alphaville an amusingly stylized hybrid of high-capitalist New York and Paris as well as greyer Eastern Bloc centers (part of what critic Andrew Sarris described as “Godard’s irreverent plague-on-both-your-houses attitude toward the Cold War”). Godard created his future city entirely with existing Paris locations, a choice that will baffle anyone who automatically assumes science fiction to mean space opera, rather than speculative fiction, to cite a term not heard too often these days.
Godard couldn’t have known just how relevant his scenario would be for the future: Alphaville might get you to ponder the role that the contemporary equivalents of Alpha 60 play in your life today. But Alphaville is also a lot of fun, with fisticuffs and gunplay in the inimitable Godard manner, not to mention more jokes and satirical riffs than can probably be assimilated in one viewing.
SPECIAL GET-OUT-OF-THE-HOUSE ADVISORY: Alphaville is out of print on DVD. And the Criterion Collection disc from 1998 featured a subpar transfer (by Criterion standards), with no extras, so don’t pass on making the trip to the Nuart. There really is no better way to see Alphaville than this new DCP transfer, which also boasts much-improved new subtitles. Complete Nuart schedule.
For a look at some posters for Alphaville from around the world — the odd, mod and beautiful — click here.
For more on Jean-Luc Godard, click here.