To Kill Time without Injuring Eternity
A Janus-bridge from Naughts to Teens, the decade’s penultimate Museum of Modern Art offering is set in a semi-sci fi, semi-future Metropolis where the past, with its words of emotion, is expunged from memory and the future non-existent. In Alphaville, only the Present is acknowledged, though the story harks back and ahead to similar cautionary tales: to Biblical-mythological Lot’s wife and Orpheus’ Eurydice -- “Don’t look back” towards the City of the Plain or to technological Hades; to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, to Brave New World and 1984.
Within cinema, it nods back to director/screen- and dialogue-writer Jean-Luc Godard’s addiction to the jumpy b&w immediacy of the American gangster genre. Akin to his first, Breathless, the film features a chain-smoking Bogart imitation who dismisses Seductresses--Division 3 with a “get lost, mouse,” calls his chosen woman “Princess,” and favors a light-colored modified trench coat in a world of automaton Matrix-men in black suits. The working title had been Tarzan Versus IBM, baldly announcing the man-vs.-machine alienation the director tried again that same year (1965) in Pierrot le fou, but the French release title is significant, too. Une etrange aventure de Lemmy Caution sought to trade on that name of the 1950-‘60s audience favorite P.I., played by craggy deadpan American singer and Piaf intimate Eddie Constantine, who had also starred in that original noir policier series inspired by Peter Cheyney’s gumshoe.
Not yet the “revolutionary as opposed to bourgeois film” of the collectivist auteur of ten years down the road, Alphaville does anticipate Godard’s even later work, “the truth 24 times a second” in naïve pseudo-philosophical lecturing dialogue side by side with self-indulgent audacity of technique.
To gravelly mechanistic voiceover that seems at some times the detective’s own and at others the electronic brain’s, mostly unnamed Guadalcanal veteran Caution arrives in Ocean Standard Time Zone as Figaro Pravda newsman Ivan Johnson. This nocturnal Paris as capital of the Galaxy is a nine-thousand-mile automobile drive from his Outerlands New York but light-years distant, for logic rules all and those who cannot be reclaimed, lobotomized or brainwashed are executed on swimming-pool diving boards for crimes of illogic like crying at a wife’s death.
Our Secret Agent .003 contacts Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), a seedy prior policeman with a bad ticker staying at the seedy Red Star Hotel run by oddballs. No one smiles in this emotionless soma-popping city as Caution snapshoots with his low-tech camera-of-choice. Among links left unclear, perhaps on purpose, is whether the current mission is to rescue the bland “beautiful sphinx” Programmer--Section 2, Natasha Von Braun (Danish model and Godard’s then-wife Anna Karina) and/or her wayward scientist father, Leonard Nosferatu in the Outerlands before becoming Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon), the sunglassed technology dictator whose headshots hang here and there.
The “journey to the end of night” in a realm without painters or writers or comic-strip artists -- references to them are many -- is interrupted by neon-flashing “e=mc2” and city-zone-indicators but leads to a Control Center whose sterile corridors resemble a run-of-the-mill office layout. Escorted by paper-tiger enforcers, Caution plays at answering questions put by ά60, Alpha 60, a “merely logical instrument” laughably resembling a fan behind a grille or alternately a headlamp.
Even though no one thinks or imagines, there are Gideons in night tables and characters declaim significant underlinings from books such as Capital of Pain. Attracted to the hero, Miss. VB is now in the dark about “robin redbreast,” “weep,” “autumn light,” “conscience” and “tenderness” but, he insists, knew all about them as a girl in Tokyo, Florence or Brooklyn. Above all, of course, she must be re-instructed in “love.”
The French appreciate Alphaville, but it wears badly over here. The soulful humanity-passionless machine dichotomy is trite and in-your-face. As for filmcraft, there are too many tics, from sophomoric comic Professors’ names Heckell and Jeckell (Jean-André Fieschi, Jean-Louis Comolli) to unreadable neon intercuts, from sinister but useless bit rôles to suddenly staggering automatons, from angle shots through open circular staircases to late negative frames.
Motiveless nihilism is not explained in Breathless or apologized for; it simply is, existentially. The self-conscious didacticism of Alphaville, however, sinks its ship. “Listen, Princess, I don’t get it. That’s how it is, you understand nothing.” Alas, we are meant to get every jot and tittle of its message.
(Released by Janus Films; not rated by MPAA.)