Friday 18 March 2011

Alphaville (1965)

Jean Luc-Godard is one of those guys who provokes in me the reaction "I don't enjoy his films very much" - to which a common response is "You're not supposed to enjoy them".  Ken Loach is another one, although a very different type of director to Godard.  I suppose a better way of putting it is that while I can see what they do is worthy, even admirable, they make films which do not particularly appeal to me.  With Loach I always get the impression that he's thinking "This is what cinema should be - and if you don't like it, you're part of the problem!"  And watching Godard's film I always feel that my desire to be entertained more is something he would regard as a decadent bourgeois attitude and that I should be grateful there are visionaries like him to enlighten me.

I guess there are plenty of film-makers who have no interest in doing anything other than providing entertainment and therefore we should cherish people like Loach and Godard.  And I do.  I think film - culture in general - political discourse and so on are much the better for having them and their films around.  But I find watching them a chore, I really do.

Which brings me to ALPHAVILLE.  This was made while Godard was still in his (relatively) accessible phase and is a sort of sci-fi noir with pretentions.  A British writer called Peter Cheyney wrote a number of stories in the 30s and 40s featuring the character Lemmy Caution, a hard-boiled detective more akin to Mike Hammer than Philip Marlowe.  The stories were set in the present but having pinched the character for his own purposes, Godard flung him into a dystopian near-future.

Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution
The depiction of that near-future is actually pretty compelling, despite there being no special effects shots.  Godard has a good eye for unusual architecture and objects and by shooting them with a combination of lighting and off-kilter camera angles he does achieve the result of a familiar but somehow alien city.  Also, the voice of the supercomputer - Alpha 60 - really does sound like some biomechanoid creation, all catarrhy and metallic, which is hardly surprising because that's exactly what it is; apparently Godard used a guy whose vocal cords had been replaced by a voice box.

There are moments of black humour too: the execution of dissidents is a combination of show trial, firing squad and synchronised swimming display; the catch-all greeting of "I'm very well.  Thank you.  You're welcome"; and Eddie Constantine, an emigre US singer turned actor, is perfect as Lemmy Caution: hard-boiled almost but not quite to the point of parody.

Executions, Alphaville-style
But there is too much unneccessary obfuscation, as if Godard believes a point isn't worth making unless it is very difficult to fathom or that a film which is merely simple and entertaining is worthless.  Have a look at the imdb page of memorable quotes from the film here and see if any of them strike you as profound.  Godard fans would no doubt argue that he was attempting to make the point that political or philosophical soundbites are necessarily empty.  Perhaps he was, but I don't think so.

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