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Overall Rating

Awesome: 18.18%
Worth A Look63.64%
Average: 18.18%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 5 user ratings

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by Jay Seaver

"Pulp inside and outside, with art-house material in between."
4 stars

Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville" has the official subtitle "A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution", but some of the other informal titles listed on the IMDB are even better, especially now that is far more famous than the series whose hero Godard appropriated. There's "Dick Tracy on Mars" and "Tarzan vs IBM", an indication of the genre bending that has its distributor billing it as Godard's "new wave film noir sci-fi masterpiece" for its re-release. And while there's a bit of pretension to stringing that many adjectives together, it is an enjoyable movie when it gets out of its own way.

Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) has come to Alphaville from the Outer Territories under the name Ivan Johnson to accomplish a twofold mission: Find missing agent Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff) and engineer Leonard Nosferatu (Howard Vernon), operating under the name "von Braun", with daughter Natasha von Braun (Anna Karina) there to guide him, although she seems to be as strange as everybody in this city controlled by the computer Alpha-60.

It's funny; the smallest things done to establish that it's the future or another world or that things are somehow out of whack can sometimes throw an audience more than all the CGI world-building filmmakers do fifty years after Alphaville had Anna Karina shake her head "yes" and nod "no". Whenever she does that, the audience stumbles for a bit, and it can leave us wondering if this is Godard doing a good job of making us feel off-center despite a familiar-looking world or him just being too clever for his own good. There are plenty of attempts to play with expectations like that throughout the movie - a computer that croaks its words like a dying man, Lemmy being more prone to shoot first and ask questions later than any pulp character, scenes where characters discuss the way that language itself is under assault or ask the deep-sounding sci-fi question of just what love is - that often come across more as a filmmaker wanting to be seen to be smart and philosophical than one who gets that reputation as a result of what he actually does and says.

That said, some of those moments are also the good type of pretension; while Godard may have meant one thing by spending so much time on Alpha-60 trying to control human language, it's an idea that has never gone out of style and still has impact for a modern audience. There's actually a wonderfully pulpy science fiction/horror story beneath the intellectual discussion, and the outer layer of crime action (a different variety of pulp fiction) makes it all go down very smoothly. For all that Godard occasionally seems to be engaging in a bit of parody, he zeroes in on the overlap between these two genres, presenting the sci-fi in a form that Lemmy can understand while also dropping the two-fisted hero that the story needs into it. A couple of years later, and it might not have worked between the space age's greater interest in futurism and growing distrust of people attempting to solve problems with force, but in 1965, they intersected just enough that a movie could be both without being the a forced mash-up that requires an explanation as it might today (even if that explanation is just "the author loves both these things and wants to put them together").

I'm going to have to check Eddie Constantine out in some of the Lemmy Caution movies based upon Peter Cheyney's original novels some time, because he's just fantastic in his embodiment of the archtypical hard-boiled hero here. He's sort of in the middle stage of being world-worn down here, snappish and frustrated, but not yet quite resigned to either the world being miserable or his feeling obligated to trying to fight it. He's seen reading The Big Sleep in one scene, but he's more a Hammett character than a Chandler one. And if Constantine is literally playing the crime fiction character, Anna Karina is playing the science fictional one - she has to make Natasha a pseudo-alien, not quite reacting in human ways to what's going on but having human responses start to emerge as the film goes on. She's never so inhuman as to be off-putting, and her gradual transformation, with regressions and quiet realizations, is top-notch.

The movie is beautiful, as well, both for Raoul Coutard's crisp black-and-white cinematography and the vacant pleasantness and beauty of so many of the people Lemmy encounters. Godard and his crew do what a number of great sci-fi filmmakers would do in later years and finding bits of modern architecture that nevertheless feel strange and otherworldly, making sure that Alphaville is both familiar and not. he pushes into genre territory at just the right times, whether it's a greeting repeated verbatim that emphasizes how the individuality has been leeched out of the place or letting beautifully mechanical control panels and electronic interfaces emerge from film noir environments.

"Alphaville" is not all well-done genre filmmaking, and I almost feel guilty talking about it as such - it is, after all, a nouvelle vague film with artistic and likely political statements to be made. I'm not the guy to get into that, though; I'm the guy that's pleased to discover that, for all that this movie's home for the past fifty years has been the art house, it actually works quite well in terms of being science fiction and private eye stories, rather than just commenting on them.

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originally posted: 05/12/14 14:57:12
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User Comments

5/19/14 Richard Brandt I never miss a Howard Vernon movie. 4 stars
10/17/11 mr.mike A bit tough to get through. The hot femmes it features help. 3 stars
6/14/04 MyGreenBed Intellectual film noir. 5 stars
4/28/04 The More You Know Social critique of French linguistic controls makes declaring love tantamount to freedom! 5 stars
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Directed by
  Jean-Luc Godard

Written by
  Jean-Luc Godard
  Paul Éluard

  Eddie Constantine
  Anna Karina
  Akim Tamiroff

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