Hmmm…Alphaville

CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”

I think I’ve seen “Alphaville” a least a half-dozen times. I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve stopped trying to fight it. Initially, “Alphaville” was like fingernails run across a blackboard. I was put off by its Cuisinenart style, its fracturing plotline and the self-conscious posturing of its characters–one fight “sequence” is just a succession of still photographs of star Eddie Constantine striking various heroic poses.

Being a gutton for punishment, when they recently brought the film back to he big screen, I dutifully went to see it. After all, I had seen it in college as a 16mm print, I had seen on T.V.s of various sizes, I had even seen it as a VHS cassette. I must say that on a theater-sized screen Raoul Coutard’s black-and-white cinemaography pulled me in immediately. And I had seen it enough times that Paul Misraki’s crashing DUM-DUM-DUM introductory theme didn’t cause me to jump out of my seat.

Of course I was still bothered by some of Jean-Luc-Godard’s little cinematic tricks–like jumping from positive to negative images for no discernable reason, and the pointless heroic posturings were still annoying. In a way, time played its own trick on Godard–in 1965 his despotic super-computer Alpha 60 was supposed to be intimidating by its sheer size. 2014 audiences got a bit of a chuckle out of that. His theme of de-humanization via mechanization, with “why” replaced by “because” and the Bible by dictionaries of new words and meanings (to replace the forbidden ones) still rings some bells. I wonder what Godard would make of our new texting-and-smart-phone-obssessed society?

But I digress. After deciding that “Alphaville” was at least a good-looking mess via my experience of it in a proper theater, I decided to give the DVD edition a try. Maybe it was the subtitles, but this time the whole thing began to click. Alphaville” is an adult comic strip–a filmed graphic novel if you will. Seeing it in those terms, the sequences that don’t go anywhere, the sequences that have High Art written all over them–as in the aquatic assassinations of Alphaville residents who act “irrationally” (that is, out of sync with Alpha 60’s directives) as they sprout various revolutionary slogans all begins to make a certain type of sense. Why not have another galaxy that you can drive to in your Ford Galaxy automobile? Why not have a city in which it snows in the North Sector but not in the South Sector. Our hero’s endless posturng with his .45 automatic makes a certain type of sense when in the the final fifteen minutes or so he actually uses it to kill off the Alpha 60’s monstrous inventor and a number of those pesky Alphaville police.

Did I menion that it shares a narrative starting point with another stylized adult comic strip film, also made in France and just a few years after? In Godard’s “Alphaville,” agent Lemmy Caution is sent to “Alphaville” to either return to Earth or execute renegade scientist Leonard Nosferatu, who now calls himself Professor von Braun and rules Alphaville via the super-computer that he created. In Roger Vadim’s “Barbarella,” agent Barbarella is sent to find and return Dr. Duran Duran who has created a deadly new ray. In both films the agent finds their quarry comfortably ensconced in the new world that they have created for themselves and with no desire to be sent “home.”

So I’ve made a certain peace with Godard and “Alphaville.” As a sci-fi comic strip on film, I can accept it, and even marvel at the clever ways in which Godard and Coutard used 1965 Paris to represent “another galaxy.” I can even let some of the more ponderous slices of Surrealism go by without too much difficulty. I don’t think I’ll ever call “Alphaville” a great film, but it is an important contribution to the evolving genre of science-fiction films. Who knows–without it there may have been no “Blade Runner.”

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