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  • Ravi Swami

"Alphaville", Dir :Jean Luc Godard, 1965

O.K - I couldn't stay away from Godard and no appraisal of his early work is complete without seeing "Alphaville", a film that I remember watching on a late-night TV screening some time in the late 70's before I knew much about Jean Luc Godard - it was touted as being science fiction and that was enough for me to check it out :)

I still don't really associate it with Godard from a genre point of view and in my mind, it's muddled in with memories of early parts of Andre Tarkovsky's "Solaris", which similarly used real contemporary locations to represent the world of the future - remember, the 60's produced a lot of modernist architecture during a spate of post-war reconstruction that must have looked very alien and futuristic at the time.

I think one of the reasons I enjoy watching films of the period is to revisit a time when everything was "ultra-modern", something that felt very palpable if you traveled by air a lot during the period - as we did on trips to India during school holidays - since airports were a prime example of architects running the gamut of ultra-modern design concepts from interior spaces through to furniture, something that is very evident in "Alphaville".

"Alphaville" merges two genres - the noir mystery and science fiction - in a way that must have seemed very novel at the time but that actually predates the film by several decades as science fiction writers explored different genres, ranging from the Western to crime novels, with the advantage that they could depict futuristic or alien worlds and technology with words. Godard inventively uses contemporary Paris as the location of the film and "Lemme Caution", played by the rugged Eddie Constantine, drives a then already vintage Ford "Galaxie" and modern hotels and computer data-banks are stand-ins for another planet.

I found it hard to figure out if Godard was deliberately injecting an element of humour into early scenes with some very clunky fist-fights and a Chandleresque narration that leans heavily towards spoofing the genres of both sci-fi and noir crime novels - the film starts with a disorienting sequence of a flashing light while a narration voiced by someone with a mechanical larynx sets up the story that follows - a voice that continues throughout the film as the disembodied presence of "Alpha-60", the supercomputer that runs the lives of the inhabitants of Alphaville.

Perhaps the clunkiness is simply a result of the director experimenting with form and exploring a Hollywood genre in the same way the other New Wave directors referenced earlier American films.

No Godard film would be complete without hefty literary references and "Alphaville" is no exception, adding to these, references to earlier films and characters from life and films in the naming of characters, for example, Anna Karina is "Natacha Von Braun" after Werner Von Braun etc.

These tend to weigh the film down but Godard stays true to the idea that each scene should propel the narrative forward and in that sense, it succeeds in terms of being both the unraveling of the mystery, in film-noir fashion, and also being a commentary on technology, totalitarianism, and poetry.

By coincidence - or was it Apple TV taking note of my film choices, an eerie reflection of "Alpha-60" ? - Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" appeared in the list of suggested films as "Alphaville" came to a close, reminding me of marveling at the depiction of a futuristic Los Angeles, also set mostly at night and also essentially a science-fiction film-noir mystery that mines similar themes and how in retrospect it owes a lot to Godard's "Alphaville", which achieved much the same atmosphere without the aid of visual effects.

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