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An entertaing Jean-Luc Godard sci-fi film..but minus a star for a barebones Criterion release
on November 16, 2009
From world renown director Jean-Luc Goddard ("Breathless", "Pierrot Le Fou", "Masculin, feminin", "Two or Thre Things I Know About Her"), one of the founding members of the French New Wave came the 1965 sci-fi film known as "alphaville" (Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution). Alphaville is a city from another world in which a supercomputer known as Alpha 60 is a dictator in control of the people and the area as it is a film that is a precursor to "big brother cameras" and technology of today. In this city, people must obey the rules as free thought, love, poetry and emotions are eliminated.
In fact, the world of Alphaville is quite interesting because rules include people not allowed to use the word "why" and replace it with the word "because", a bible is kept in each hotel room (which is more or less a dictionary with updated words of not to say) and anyone found breaking these rules will be executed. So, due to the power of Alpha 60, the people of alphaville have been reconditioned and brainwashed.
Enter an agent from "The Outlands" (outside of Alphaville which is literally the city next to it but is called another universe) named Lemmy Caution (played by Eddie Constantine, "Europa", "The Long Good Friday", "Tokyo no Kyujitsu") who is given a mission: To find a missing agent named Henry Dickson and capture and kill the creator of Alphaville, Professor von Braun (played by Howard Vernon).
So, Lemmy infiltrates Alphaville posing as a journalist named Ivan Johnson from the outlands who works for the publication Figaro-Pravda in which he starts taking pictures of the people around Alphaville which doesn't provoke any reaction from the people at Alphaville (because emotion is not supposed to be displayed by those who live there).
Immediately when he makes it to his room, he realizes that these people have been programmed so well that their minds work in interesting ways. For example, his first day is in a hotel and the woman (which has a title of a seductress, third class) that escorts him to his room is only programmed to please and do whatever he wants. Almost like a mindless zombie, she is programmed to asked the same questions over and over.
He immediately meets Professor von Braun's daughter, Alpha 60 programmer Natacha von Braun (played by Anna Karina, "Pierrot le fou", "Une femme est une femme", "Cle de 5 a 7"), a woman assigned to stay close to Mr. Johnson, thinking that he's in town for a festival (which many people from the Outlands come to Alphaville to attend). And not long after their meeting, Natacha is surprised by the questions that Johnson asks her like if she has ever been in love, a concept that she does not understand.
So, as Lemmy continues his mission to find the missing agent and to capture or destroy Alpha 60, he becomes smitten with Natacha as he tries to bring emotions out of her that she is not familiar with. But the more he goes forward into his mission, he is also under the watchful eye of Alpha 60.
VIDEO & AUDIO:
"alphaville" is presented in the aspect ratio of 1:33:1 and in black and white. At the time of this DVD pressing, the digital transfer was created from a 35mm fine grain master made from the original negative. This is before newer technology was able to eliminate a lot of dust particles, scratches, etc. But overall, it doesn't deter from the viewability of this classic film. What my eyes were focusing a lot in the film is how Godard constructs the shot. From beautiful locations, elevators and stairwells, there is a sense of style that you see in those shots that I found to be wonderful. But also using scenes that is reminiscent of an Ozu style as the actors look directly at the camera straight on while conversing with another person.
As for audio, the French audio is presented in Dolby Digital mono. The sound was mastered from the 35mm magnetic soundtrack. For the most part, dialogue is understandable and Alpha 60's voice is loud, repetitive and annoying. But my preference in watching this film was having my receiver set with stereo on all channels despite the soundtrack being Dolby Digital mono as I wanted to utilize the rear surrounds to incorporate the mono audio track.
Subtitles are in English.
"alphaville" contains no special features but a short essay by Andrew Sarris (film critic for the New York Observer) is included in the insert.
"alphaville" was an interesting film as it was a film that has been interpreted differently by many people who have seen it. Was it a statement about the suppression of individuality? Was it a statement of early corporate control on a society?
Although the film is a sci-fi film with film noir undertones, it's not a film to think of out of space or typical sci-fi scenery. Nor should one expect special effects. "Alphaville" does take place in an alternate world and although the supercomputer is more or less a light inside a ventilation vent in the film, it's not more about the scenery but what has happened to humanity in "Alphaville". Was the society void of emotion done for the sake of a statement towards the US? The War? Against art? Against love?
Needless to say, the film is one of those films you rewatch a few times and I have found myself with a new perspective each time of what I felt about the film. But some people may feel the film goes right over their heads. And if it does, you won't be alone as the film opened at the New York Film Festival and according to film critic Andrew Sarris, the audience were baffled by the shift in tone. And he talks about the shift of futurism to private-eye mannerisms and I can definitely see that. The film is a mixed bag of incorporating various themes.
But if you look at the film and what it was accomplishing back in 1965, can you imagine how a sci-fi film about a computerized dictator would be somewhat of a precursor to films such as evil computers such as HAL2000 ("2001"), "Terminator" and sure, it may be campy compared to today's film but the fact that a film like this was created back then with an evil supercomputer in mind is quite fascinating.
As mentioned earlier, there are some awesome looking scenes such as Lemmy and Natacha coming down from the stairs or even riding the elevator. I love how those scenes were shot. Probably the most interesting parts of the film is during the execution of those who showcased their emotions to the public and now are to be executed for shedding a tear. As one man who cried for the death of his child, we see him assassinated for displaying emotions. As he falls, a group of female swimmers collect his body. Very interesting scenes in the film during that execution scene but at the same time, for people being killed by gun shots, you would hope to see Godard try to add some realism or even blood on their clothing.
Especially during the fighting and gun shot scenes, for the most part..."Alphaville" suffers from the action scenes looking quite campy. In one scene, a group of thugs circle around Lemmy in an elevator and you see his body moving from all sides as if he was getting the tar beat out of him. But of course, Lemmy suffers no damage at all.
But I understand that the goal of the film was not on special effects but its storyline and its characters. Eddie Constantine did a wonderful job as Lemmy Caution. He has that nonchalant, brute, no-nonsense persona that I felt was cool and of course, Godard's wife/actress Anna Karina as Natacha von Braun. She was absolutely adorable and very beautiful in this film.
Overall, I have to admit that "alphaville" was quite intriguing and enjoyable. Was it one of Godard's masterpiece films? Not really. And the fact that this is one of the few Criterion Collection DVD's that is literally a barebones release, I know some people may find that unacceptable. But the fact that you can find this DVD quite cheap online is a plus and if you are a Godard fan, it's worth checking out.
With interesting cut scenes, audio, imagery and solid acting from Constantine and Karina, "Alphaville" is one of those classic sci-fi, noir films that will definitely entertain you.