Criterion Corner: Alphaville (1965) - Reviewed

French New Wave mastermind Jean-Luc Godard deconstructs the American Noir by fusing it with a dystopian science fiction story in which the power of art and creativity are the most potent weapons imaginable. Alphaville uses the classic detective story as a means to levy a scathing satire of governmental control over free thought and the dangers of complacent acceptance of servitude by way of compliance with authority. 

Eddie Constantine stars as secret agent Lemmy Caution. Caution has been sent from a neighboring "galaxy" to Alphaville to find the creator of Alpha 60, a malignant self-aware computer. Along the way Lemmy becomes enamored with the creator's daughter Natacha (the bewitching Anna Karina) and is forced into an unusual confrontation with Alpha 60 in which the power of love proves to be an unexpected advantage. Godard’s script brims with dissent against censorship, portraying Alpha 60 as an executioner of creativity. Bibles are replaced with edited dictionaries while the citizens of Alphaville can no longer remember the word "why". Constantine wanders Godard's wasteland with a perfect mix of gumshoe antihero and ex-pat bad boy. His chemistry with Karina is initially awkward, a naturally created byproduct of Natacha's lifelong submersion in Alphaville's oppressive culture. As the narrative develops the two find an interesting stride that sidesteps expected romantic entanglements into poetic uncertainty.

Raoul Coutard's cinematography is a living illusion, relying primarily on institutional shots of Parisian architecture and sweeping nocturnal images that give the City of Lights an alien quality. Godard used an electrical plant and a hotel for the bulk of filming without creating any sets, allowing the cast and crew to improvise the details of a world in distress. Light and its absence are the true heroes of Godard's experiment, shaping a self-contained galaxy within endless corridors and sinister hotel rooms, playing on the Noir DNA of its inception. This is echoed in the bizarre and often intentionally humorous exchanges between Caution and the various denizens that he encounters, taking the fish out of water concept and infusing it with stinging humor and a surprising amount of existential dread. 

Available now for digital streaming or on an out of print Criterion Collection DVD, Alphaville is an interesting mix of beloved genres that takes the minimalist approach to exploring massive themes of its contemporaries. Science fiction is where the questions of existence and meaning can be dissected through the use of larger than life technologies and visual impossibilities. Godard's film takes the opposite route, bringing these concepts to the venue of individuality and remains there throughout, leaving the stars for another artist to explore; for Alphaville is a universe within our minds. If you're interested in an unusual take on science fiction and noir, one that would go on to influence countless films to come, this is an extremely unique experience whose ingenuity and restraint eclipse its lack of bravado.

Share this Criterion review. 

-Kyle Jonathan