Criterion Sunday 25: Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

The title may reference a then-popular detective series starring American expatriate Eddie Constantine, but as per usual this is hardly a straightforward film from Jean-Luc Godard. It’s set in a retro-futurist Paris, though of course Godard didn’t have the budget to build any sets, but rather films amongst the modern 1960s architecture of the city, all glass lifts and big shiny lobbies, not to mention anonymous office corridors at the heart of the computer-controlled corporation that runs the city. It’s a film of alternately banal surfaces and fascinating faces (whether the pitted one of Constantine, or Godard’s muse of the time, the ravishing Anna Karina), matched to the raspy electronically-modulated voice of computer overlord Alpha 60. I can’t for a moment pretend to tell you what actually happens — there are elements of generic detective plot though Caution is fighting on behalf of individualism and free thought rather than anything more base, and Godard punctuates scenes with images of flashing lights and neon equations, presumably to symbolise Alpha 60’s reliance on logic. There’s a troubling relationship to women in Alphaville’s society — a theme that runs through a lot of Godard’s filmmaking — and it’s difficult to be sure whether that’s a function of the oppressive state or something more insidious. Needless to say, it’s a strange and fascinating movie whose images of a modern nighttime Paris have a dark romanticism to them, especially seen at a remove of what is now 50 years.

Criterion Extras: Certainly not all Criterion releases have extensive extras (though more recently they’ve tended to put the bare-bones stuff out on their Eclipse sub-label), but even by the thin standards of some others of this period, Alphaville is particularly negligible. There’s not even a trailer, so it comes down to the two slim pages written by Andrew Sarris on the inside of the booklet, and of course the quality of the transfer. A bit of context to this odd attempt at sci-fi futurism would have been nice, but at the very least the transfer is of excellent quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 23 July 2002 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998 and October 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 March 2015)

Advertisements

Allemagne année 90 neuf zéro (Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, 1991)

Following his great experimental Nouvelle Vague (1990), Godard did this shorter, rather more atypical piece set in Germany following the fall of the Berlin Wall. In it, he reunites with the star of Alphaville (1965), Eddie Constantine, again assuming his Lemmy Caution persona as he moves around Berlin, not unlike a time traveller, crossing past, present and future, and offering observations on the changes that have taken place.

I say it’s atypical, but that’s only because it goes on location, which the Godard of the 1980s onwards seemed less willing to do than the one who made, say, Le Mépris. However, it has most of the defining qualities of late-period Godard in its opacity and referentiality. It’s ostensibly a documentary, but takes in a lot more material, including interpolations of film clips and extensive quotes from literary and artistic sources, not to mention allusions and cryptic jokes. Therefore, it’s difficult for a viewer such as myself who is unfamiliar with a lot of the sources to make sense of this dense mélange, except in the broadest sensory terms.

Most notable perhaps is the presence of Constantine, who moves through the film’s largely depopulated spaces with a leathery old visage and basilisk stare. Echoing Germany’s own liminal state, it’s a film of uneasy spaces — border zones and shipyards and quarries — and Constantine seems appropriately out of place. He throws some flowers to the ground to join a battered street sign for Karl-Marx-Strasse that his car promptly drives over. The quarry in particular is accompanied by the most fantastic mining machine, a vast assemblage that could scarcely be contained in the mind of Terry Gilliam (it’s pictured in the poster included at the top of this review), and which threateningly towers over our narrator and guide.

It’s not just the weight of history and the bulk of machinery that seems to overwhelm the increasingly aged Constantine, for the film itself forcefully pursues its own formal strategies. Most striking is the soundtrack, which has its own dense sonic texture quite apart from (but at times working together with) the image track. Images and sounds weave into one another so densely that even the passing of a few days since I saw the film has made it difficult to recall any specifics. However, it’s fair to say that Godard isn’t really interested in just presenting a history of modern Germany in orthodox terms, but more as a assemblage of influences that reveal a state of mind, complete with some tendentious statements about the German national psyche as well as clips that pull in German poetry, painting, music, films and — of course — the politics that have defined its mid-20th century.

In the end it’s an experience that cannot easily be contained in a review. The Godard of this era — here and more so in the larger Histoire(s) du cinéma project — reasserts his role as a critic, marshalling evidence to support his sometimes rather too opaque claims. Just as the wall between East and West Berlin has fallen, and the borders between the two halves have opened, so the distinction between the two has become blurred — as our guide on this journey, Constantine is constantly seen asking those he meets “which way to the West?” to be met with at best confusion, but more usually totally blankness. At times, that’s the experience of the viewer too, but Godard’s richly layered filmmaking ensures that it’s never boring.


© GNCR

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Iain Sinclair 70×70 | DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Nos solitudes: enquêtes sur un sentiment by Michel Hannoun) | Cinematographers Stépan Benda, Andréas Erben and Christophe Pollock | Starring Eddie Constantine | Length 61 minutes || Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Wednesday 11 September 2013

My Rating 3 stars good


Next Up: Godard spent the rest of the decade focusing on his video work Histoire(s) du cinéma, but my next review will be of his 2001 return Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love), a densely poetic but ravishingly beautiful evocation of ageing that returns to some of the images and themes of his youth.

Flight to Berlin (1984)

This screening was presented as part of the ongoing celebrations of author and filmmaker Iain Sinclair’s 70th birthday. It’s a film by his colleague and friend Chris Petit, who has made some excellent films and documentaries over several decades (some with Sinclair), and I hardly wish to go on at length about a film I found disappointing, especially when it’s a film that is relatively obscure and unavailable. Therefore I shall keep my comments brief. (NB I can find no poster online for this film, so the attached image shows the lead character, played by actor Tusse Silberg.)


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Iain Sinclair 70×70 || Director Christopher Petit | Writers Christopher Petit and Hugo Williams (based on the novel Strange Days by Jennifer Potter) | Cinematographer Martin Schäfer | Starring Tusse Silberg, Ewan Stewart, Eddie Constantine, Paul Freeman | Length 91 minutes | Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Tuesday 11 September 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© BFI

Petit’s film, his third feature following his excellent debut Radio On (1979), is built around a mystery involving a woman, Susannah (played by Tusse Silberg), though it’s never quite clear what she’s involved in. We are introduced to her being taken from her German hotel to be interrogated by police agents, by whom no more than teasing hints are dropped as to what’s happened, before the film flashes back to her arrival in Berlin. Susannah meets up with her sister, and then, giving an assumed name, falls in with a handsome young Scot, Jack (Ewan Stewart), at a cafe. He has followed her from her sister’s workplace, and it turns out that he, the sister and the sister’s husband are all wrapped up in something shady — again it’s never clear what. There’s also a sense that Susannah is running from her past, as her husband Nicholas (Paul Freeman) is in pursuit of her, though he never quite catches up. And then there’s Eddie Constantine, who just shows up as himself (an American-born French actor), as part of the sister’s circle of contacts.

Continue reading “Flight to Berlin (1984)”