Alphaville (Criterion Collection) Review
Jean-Luc Godard wanted to originally name Alphaville as "Tarzan vs. IBM" and as a title that encapsulates the essence of the film splendidly. Tarzan is the rugged, individualistic caveman competing against a faceless, massive and technological army of like-minded drones. It is one of the most fundamental concepts in postmodern theory; the issue of a person's displacement amongst time and space through technological means.
A science-fiction marriage with Godard was never going to prove a pleasurable cinematic voyage, and Alphaville, despite being set in the future, is filmed completely using nineteen-sixties' Parisian sets and props and without any special effects. Granted, the film contains an approximate beginning, middle and an end, but is still a painful viewing exercise in the best Godard tradition. Images are displayed (seemingly) with a lack of context, editing is far from linear and sequences seem out of place and rambling, and yet in hindsight Alphaville effectively conveys its argument, and remains a New Wave sci-fi classic.
Alphaville tells of a French agent from the 'Outlands' called Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) who seems a retrogressive take on the American private-detective of the thirties and forties. Caution is direct and fully in charge of his actions - he uses his accompanying handgun to prove this. However, upon visiting the land of Alphaville, on a mission to assassinate the scientist in charge Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon), Lemmy is repulsed by the way of life, where creativity and individualistic expression has been replaced by total logic, expressed ruthlessly by Alphaville's main think-tank computer Alpha-60.
As a precursor to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or even the Vulcans in Star Trek, Alphaville explores themes that were mostly new concepts for cinema-goers. A society in which total logic prevails is by definition an enemy to creativity and individual thought, since logic bases its structure on rules. That is why the super-computer Alpha-60 can not digest poetry, since it cannot understand the nature of context. Context is the key value of the film, since every notion's context level has been distorted from the level we ourselves place upon them.
Words are used as weapons to destroy creativity. The only 'bible' that is used by the masses in Alphaville is a streamlined dictionary that subtly drops words from its vocabulary without detection. Words such as 'love' and 'conscience' are unknown to the people of Alphaville, and so is the word 'why', which has been subconsciously replaced in the populous' heads by the word 'because'. Indeed, the inhabitants of Alphaville are so brainwashed by their daily routine of following instructions without questioning them that they automatically spout a phrase in the form of a greeting ("I'm very well, thank you, not at all") that lacks any contextual or actual relevance.
Alpha-60 epitomises the vacuous 'human' race that Alphaville reveals to us. Its dry, slow voice is fearful because it lacks tone. It represents the gradual change of power between human entities and technological ones, in fact, Alphaville preaches that only humans who are capable of conquering technology can rule.
It's hard to tell whether the national symbolism in Alphaville is deliberate or not. The zone of Alphaville could represent France, with Lemmy and the 'Outlands' representing America and its archaic principles gradually infiltrating an advanced French culture. It's also possible that Lemmy represents the past civilisation of forceful individualism and Alphaville symbolises the ever-increasing dominance of technology in everyday society. As a film, it paradoxically juggles chaos with control; it bombards the viewer with information without seeming to say anything.
With regards to the production values, the film utilises claustrophobic cinematography by acclaimed photographer Raoul Coutard to heighten the intense, restrictive atmosphere Alphaville projects to its inhabitants. The musical score by Paul Misraki is deliberately unsettling, and has also had its contextual meaning completely removed. Its impossible to ascertain when listening to the score whether certain sequences from Lemmy's point of view are safe or dangerous, as if Godard is expressing the notion that in Alphaville even the music is pointless in the ultimate pursuit of logic. The performances in Alphaville seem to be purposefully stilted, in a sense conveying the robotic invasion of the human soul. Even Eddie Constantine seems unexcited and brooding as Lemmy, as if his character's alienation from the Alphaville inhabitants have sparked mental unrest.
Alphaville should certainly not be an introduction to Godard, nor will it be considered easy viewing for many a film enthusiast, but it certainly offers much food for thought, especially on the issues of technological dominance and the gradual abolition of the Individual. Our postmodernist society comes closer to resembling Godard's Alphaville by each passing year, and therefore the film's relevancy is heightened dramatically.
Presented in the original fullscreen, the film's transfer was created by Criterion using the 35mm grain master taken from the original negative. Images are wonderfully clear and vivid, even if the negative used features some tarnishes and defects and the contrast seems slightly low on occasions. English subtitles are presented without captions and are in most cases clearly visible.
Criterion have mastered the monaural mix from the 35mm magnetic soundtrack and it is marvellous. Sound events are fresh and dynamic in terms of audible tone and dialogue is rich and has been given a new lease of life.
: A nicely coloured and static menu featuring a few headshots of the film's characters.
Packaging: Presented in an amaray case with usual Criterion trim (Spine number 25) and a chapter listing insert that also contains a good short essay from Andrew Sarris.
Unusually for Criterion, there are no DVD based extra features for Alphaville.
A deep and intense science-fiction satire from Godard is given a fantastic feature presentation on DVD with a disappointing lack of extras given Criterion's reputation. Not the ultimate DVD to own by any means, Alphaville qualifies as a bare-bones classic by virtue of its strong originality and emerging relevance in terms of its subject matter.