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The Power of Legend, and Words.,
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This review is from: Alphaville [DVD] (DVD)
"Alphaville" is compelling viewing. I'm glad I bought a copy because you really have to watch it several times to take it in. The introduction is helpful, and the documentary about the film's development and impact really good at setting the context and explaining some of the themes and threads.
That's not to say the film is perfect. Quite how the hero, Lemmy Caution, manages to successfully achieve the things he does when broadly speaking he's just one man against the system, stretches credibility. I can't help wondering how he'd have fared in the totalitarian regime of George Orwell's '1984' - which is one source of inspiration for 'Alphaville'. Although, to be fair, you could probably level this accusation at most of the other spies; P.I.s and detectives in fiction.
Also, some things seem to happen without a set-up - generally when the hero is attacked by henchmen a couple of times. Although these action sequences are supposed to come out of the blue - like in James Bond films from around the same time - at least they had some short set-up to which the fight sequences are the pay-off. Just the occasional menacing henchman slowly walking up to the en suite bathroom/phone-booth /lift would have done.
Though to be fair, Goddard isn't really that kind of film maker or storyteller. He has other fish to fry. And the compensations include enjoyably bizarre imagery, like the hotel prostitute (or 'seductress') randomly having a sexy bath whilst seemingly unaware of the two tough guys punching the living daylights out of each other in the same en suite bathroom. And possibly the most arty car park punch-up ever committed to cinema. And just why do state executions need to be conducted at a swimming pool?
The film's strengths lie in the themes of the power of words and legends. In the city of Alphaville, hotel bibles are really dictionaries which are republished at regular enough intervals to get rid of words. Rather like the regime of Big Brother, it seems Alpha 60 thinks that by destroying words, it can destroy ideas; thoughts and feelings. The film even begins by saying, (and I'll paraphrasing here): "Words cannot describe everything. This is where legends are formed. We form the world through these legends."
This is where Lemmy Caution comes in. Originally a Philip Marlow-esque character from pulp thrillers written by the British Peter Cheyney. He then started to appear in popular French films, starring Eddie Constantine, who plays the character in "Alphaville" - the same character, inexplicably turning up out of his place and time, in a totalitarian city in another galaxy in the far future. What would be its equivalent? James Bond, played by Sean Connery, rocks up in '1984'? Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes arrives in "Elysium"? John Thaw's Inspector Morse in "Blade Runner"? (surely that would be melancholy amplified - truly cinema to slit your wrists to).
Yet Lemmy Caution is - in his own pulp way - a legend. It could have been Bond; or it could have been Hercules, or Robin Hood or King Arthur. He's come to try and save his friend, and slay the monster.
As many Science Fiction films reluctantly testify, nothing seems to age faster than the future. Yet Goddard's film-making approach leaves it faring better than expected. The use of real locations in and around the then new modernist buildings of Paris, and the retention of early sixties fashions makes it strangely undated. We now know that fashions are cyclical. We might call it atomicpunk, but there's nothing wrong with that. Maybe the future will look atomicpunk. In one scene Caution is asked why he is using a 1965 design camera. "I distrust modern technology" he says. No one who owns a smartphone could disagree with him.
It's a great film that stands up well. You'll want to watch it again and again.