To call the French New Wave art-form an over-praised, self-indulgent, and above all self-aware movement in the history of cinema perhaps might be an understatement for some! For me personally, I take more delight in the more modern achievements that the French have obtained within their industry, La Haine, Sur mes Levres, L’homme du Train, just to name but a few wonderful examples. However you would be hard pressed to be a film student at university and NOT have to endure the cinematic delights of directors such as Andre Bazin, Francois Truffant, and the most famous of all Jean luc Goddard. Coming into such an artistic form of filmmaking with no preconceived notions enabled me to formulate a fairly unbiased opinion of this ‘New Wave’ art style as I slowly trudged through the required viewings from my university faculty, your 400 Blows, and Breathless(‘) amongst many others acting as examples. In short, I feel fairly confident in saying: I am not a fan. However to close my mind off completely to such a radical departure from what the majority of Western audiences would consider the “norme” for narrative delivery would be a mistake. For if I did that I would never have fallen in love with this particular piece of Frenchie movie-making!
Alphaville is a twisted blend of your typical European Film Noir set against a paradoxically modern science fiction backdrop mixed in with French New Wave filming techniques and given an American lead actor to add flavor. The result is an intriguing, often haunting experience with plenty of moments to keep even the most perplexed viewer glued to their seat! We find our protagonist, one monsieur Caution, a walking detective cliche if there ever was one, attempting to eliminate the inventor of the ruler of Alphaville, Alpha 60; a precursor to the chilling Hal 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s slow-paced space odyssey that would be released three years later. Caution, posing as journalist Ivan Johnson, begins to document the bizarre world of Alphaville and its citizens whilst also becoming infatuated with a female computer programmer Natacha von Braun, played wonderfully by Anna Karina, who wishes to escape her totalitarian existence with Caution.
What you first begin to notice about Goddard’s sci-fi/noir escapade is the design of its world. Filmed in and around Paris, using classic and (then) contemporary architecture, Goddard manages to create a futuristic Orwellian 1984 using all of the raw materials of 1960’s France without loosing focus from his audience. The often bizarre series of events as they occur such as when Agent Caution enters his hotel room only to find a woman (Karina) lying on his bed moments before he is assaulted by another secret agent who is shortly killed by Caution who then begins to talk to the woman as if nothing has happened whatsoever…is…quite odd. The elements of the French New Wave style are of course present throughout Goddard’s feature. The non-linear editing of certain sequences, the interesting and often times jarring use of sound design, even the performance presentations of the actors can all be contributed to the art-form’s groundbreaking progress in the cinema industry. But make no mistake, Alphaville is no Breathless!
As a science fiction aficionado I was compelled to keep watching the events contained within this film, despite their awkwardness in conventional storytelling at times. The dialogue spoken by American-born French actor Eddie Constantine is a joy to listen to, but nothing can outshine the incredible look of Constantine’s face, even in the more action-heavy scenes throughout the film. The gravely deep voice, the remorseless depth of his eyes, along with the trilby hat, rain overcoat and pitted skin, all make the actor feel like the very antithesis of what French New Wave can be capable of. Yet through Goddard’s genius, as well as unique presentational approach, he succeeds in making Alphaville a chillingly memorable narrative almost effortlessly. Watch in particular for the introduction of the heartless Alpha 60, as well as the more historically relevant sequence containing a mass execution under audience praise inside a public swimming pool. Despite my attitude towards what I regard as an often over-praised style of cinema convention I’d truly be remiss if I didn’t praise at least one of this art-form’s masterpieces…if only just once.