director Jean-Luc Godard
I’ve come, over the years, to be quite the fan of Jean-Luc Godard. In film school, I think I was more ambivalent to negative, appreciating but not really enjoying any of his films that I’d seen. But in the years that I’ve been keeping this film diary, I’ve now see most of his early films and have come to particularly and specifically enjoy them. Personal favorites have been Pierrot le fou (1965) and Bande à part (1964), and while I’ve been watching the films at scattershot over the years, I hadn’t revisited Alphaville, which was an old classmate and friend’s personal favorite.
Alphaville was one of Godard’s films that I preferred in college, but still had mixed feelings about. It had been fifteen to twenty years ago that I had last seen it and the only reason I hadn’t revisited it was probably because I was making way for the films that I had never seen.
Alphaville is a science fiction film, though being a Godard science fiction film, it’s hardly a thing of pure genre. In fact, it’s an early example of genre mash-up, if you will, pulling in Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution (a regular detective character that Constantine had played in numerous films over the years), it’s also a hard-boiled noir. This mixture of noir and science fiction has long been cited as a key influence on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), so by proxy, the film has had tremendous stylistic impact.
One of the other extraordinary things about Godard’s choices in the film is the use of no special effects or even set design, costume design to depict a world of “the future”. Instead, he uses existing buildings and objects that have a particular modernist style, futuristic perhaps, but very much things that existed in France in the mid-1960’s. The conceit is clever (nothing has to be designed, no speculative future imagined, per se), but it also offers a strange, naturalism to the flavor of the film, naturalism within its very odd artifice.
Because Godard’s films acknowledge film and artifice regularly. In breaks with narrative, odd moments of humor, toying with the viewer’s expectations. There is a resultant style that feels distinctly different from other Godard films while remaining extremely typical of Godard.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this noir future stylistically. It’s something that has developed to a level of cliche over the years, but there is something compelling within it, cultural aesthetics that “speak” louder than words.
And there is Anna Karina, whose loveliness seems to grow on me every time her face appears onscreen.
One funny thing that struck me is that within in the science fiction rubric, Godard’s social critique comes off perhaps less radical. The genre lends itself so much to social critique, the depiction of any future state reflects a concept of how that state evolves to be, how it reflects the realities of the present in possibly exaggerated fashion, how all science fiction has some “cautionary” nature to its endemic “predictions”.
Godard’s work is typically quite politicized, radical in the way he approaches the goals of each film, sometimes with more overt challenges, sometimes with more play within the pleasures of the cinema. The experiment of Alphavillie is no less so, but perhaps approaches similarities in the genre even as it strikes out at its conventions.
On top of everything, it’s a “cool” movie. It’s hip. You could easily play it at a midnight movie setting or with other cult films and its coolness, ironically played or not, still play as cool. The black and white frozen modernity is still as stylish today, maybe even more stylish, than it ever was.