Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Maggie 2010: Criterion'd, Part II

#95. Alphaville

French New Wave is not my area of expertise--the heavy stylization of this genre makes it less interesting to me, on the whole, than the realist or minimalist works of a great many other cinematic traditions. (In other words, I can handle the constant reminder of artifice, but only in short doses: my true loves are films where suspension of disbelief is carried out to perfection.) Nonetheless, there is a very important discursive role played by films like Alphaville, which push the notion of estrangement to its limits, and any film lover would be greatly remiss in not seeing at least a few French New Wave films in their time.

Alphaville is set in a place that looks quite familiar to our own of decades past, right down to resonant war, architectural, and media details, and wears the skin of a film noir with ease. However, the city of Alphaville is also part of a dystopic science fiction future where a technocratic dictatorship has outlawed emotion. As Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), an agent from "the Outlands" on a mission to recover a lost agent and bring down the main computer, Alpha 60, delves deeper into this land, he does so only at great peril to himself and those he enlists along the way.

The effect of this curious blending of genres, with its classic lost heroine (Anna Karina) and its familiar espionage routines, in conjunction with Orwellian devices and the imposition of sci-fi narrative over visualizations of '60s-era technology, is most profound in hindsight. While you're watching director Jean-Luc Godard's highly acclaimed work, you're more than in your rights to be stunned by its strangeness, its essential weirdness. But after it's over, let the film sit with you awhile before passing judgment. Read history. Read current events. Go out and live your life.

One day you'll come across an accounting of the actual Cold War. You might be watching a genuine film noir at the time. Or perhaps it will be another war; another film genre entirely. Whatever the vehicle, whatever the fact, suddenly you'll look on the history of division, of oppression, and you'll feel that strangeness seep into reality. What would the facts of our history look like to an alien species, an audience removed from the immediacy of one war's consequences? Would its machinations appear any less bizarre? These are some of the questions Alphaville leaves with us; these are the observations Godard's work permits us to make.

I'm hardly alone in asserting that the role of blatant artifice in film is to draw our attention to the artifice that exists all around us. Nor am I alone in arguing that Godard is a master of this approach, and Alphaville, in its cold, estranging way, a masterpiece of that form. But I might be one of a smaller number willing to say that Alphaville isn't a film you should expect to enjoy; but a film, nonetheless, that more than deserves to be viewed.

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