Friday, December 17, 2010

Alphaville , une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)
FRANCE --- science fiction

Dir: Jean-Luc Godard

cy·ber·punk (sbr-pnk) n.
Fast-paced science fiction involving futuristic computer-based societies.
cyber·punk adj.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company

Jean-Luc Godard's now classic French new-wave film, "Alphaville", did not coin the phrase cyberpunk, but it certainly influenced the science fiction sub-genre. The film is one of the quintessential examples of science fiction that works as a social commentary of the zeitgeist, yet somehow influences or predicts the future. It's a can't lose proposition. The more things change, the more things stay the same, no matter what year it reads on the calendar.

In true-to-form film noir, a raspy voice narrates our lone gumshoe's black-and-white adventure into the neon drenched night; and yet it doesn't. American actor Eddie Constantine portrays Lemmy Caution, a character Godard appropriates from author Peter Cheyney. Also of note, Constantine is revisiting this character like a pair of old shoes, much like Sean Connery to 007 (as of date he's played the character well over ten times). We find Caution, under the guise of Ivan Johnson, entering a seedy hotel where he hopes to find one his marks, a man named agent X21. X21 seemingly goes into cardiac arrest whilst meeting with a less than enthusiastic prostitute. He tells Caution Alpha 60 will self destruct from tenderness. He soon meets with a Natasha Von Braun (played by Godard ex-wife and director pet Anna Karina).

Natasha escorts Caution through the soulless city that is Alphaville. Under strict control of a super-computer designated Alpha 60, the denizens are devoid of tenderness and take no qualms in executing people with love and compassion. Caution is just in time for a formal gala at an Olympic-sized swimming pool that celebrates the execution of those who resist. Here, Caution sees his next mark, the sunglasses-clad Professor Vonbraun, (possibly a reference to renown rocket scientist Wernher von Braun) Alpha 60's creator. His interest attracts suspicion, and he's subsequently captured by Alpha 60's engineers and interrogated by the super-computer. The interrogation is unsuccessful as Caution dodges its questions with poetic answers that ultimately can not be interpreted by Alpha 60.

Being from the Outlands, Caution despises Alphaville with each passing discovery of its subjugation of basic human feelings. He grows fonder for Natasha as she begins to develop a forbidden relationship with him. Natasha rediscovers that the Bible (which is a name used for the dictionary), has much truth in it. She slowly learns things from the Caution like poetry and words that are outlawed that she once had much affection for. She begs for Caution to get out of Alphaville, and he does, but not before he completes his mission, and destroys the super-computer responsible for the mass repression of Alphaville.

"Alphaville" isn't a masterpiece of sci-fi cinema by any means. The French New Wave aesthetics were strictly flexible enough to invite the filmmakers to experiment outside of their comfort zone. Both Godard and Truffaut (who helmed the great Bradbury adaptation "Fahrenheit 451") tried their hand in the science fiction genre, but Godard didn't feel the pressure to erect expensive sets and production design to get a message across. This reason gives viewers of "Alphaville" a choice, as it can very easily come off as cheap parody. Godard deliberately used contemporary France in his futuristic essay, and concentrated less on the film noir tropes such as chiaroscuro cinematography or fast-paced witty dialogue. Opting for a minimalist style of static close-ups of faces, neon lights, familiar electronic noises, and shifting back-and-forth to a moving camera of human interaction, Godard successfully evokes an unnerving feel throughout the piece. Putting us in Caution's pov as he snaps portraits of emotionless women with serial-number tatoos. On top of this, conveying the central message of the film in showing us Alpha 60's binary logic driven society, and Caution's unpredictable behavior.

The character Lemmy Caution comes out of the hard-boiled pulp fiction novels of the past, but he's investigating a future imperfect. It is often funny to see the futuristic imaginations of fantasists back in the day. Some came shockingly close to accurate predictions, most did not. Robby the Robot is the best example of the latter. For what it's worth, this is an interesting if archaic look into man's fears of technology and the digital age we find ourselves in. Long before the works of William Gibson or films like "The Matrix", there's no denying the ever-changing relationship between man and machine, paper versus plastic, and the constant struggle we confront embracing the future over the past. The film outright message against communism and censorship through the use of machines was only a half truth. No one could have predicted the digital age and its allowance of freedom to be yet another frontier to tame. This film, however, stands as one of the early, silent screams before the storm of technological anxiety.