Blu-ray Review: Alphaville | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, May 28th, 2020  


Studio: Kino Lorber

Nov 07, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Jean-Luc Godard is a name so widely recognized that even those who have never seen a frame of his many feature films can recognize his influence on the whole of cinema. However, for those who follow and absorb the director’s filmography, Alphaville is a title that garners some of the more polarized reactions from critics and audiences. While initially billed as another Euopean adaptation from Peter Cheyney’s Lemmy Caution detective novels, Godard’s plans propelled the character completely out of his element onto a different planet to square off against a dystopian artificial intelligence, almost acting like a precursor to Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” The ending result has long been debated, though it is impossible to deny that Alphaville has had a fascinating and enduring legacy.

We follow Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a secret agent from the “Outlands” posing as a journalist, as he arrives on Alphaville to complete a series of highly dangerous missions. While searching for a missing agent (Akim Tamiroff), Caution is also tasked to capture or kill Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon), the creator of Alphaville and its dictatorial supercomputer Alpha 60. While navigating the complex inner workings of this alienated police state where human emotions are deemed illogical and unnecessary, leading those who openly display emotion to be terminated publically, Caution enlists Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), daughter of Professor von Braun and a highly gifted programmer. The pair work to achieve their ultimate goals of destroying Alpha 60 and uncovering the true soul of their humanity.

American actor Eddie Constantine had already been the on-screen portrayer of Lemmy Caution since the early 1950s, and though he would take on the role fifteen times for theatrical films, this was the first major departure from the established norm and the first entry not to be directly adapted from an existing Cheyney novel. Beginning production in trademark fashion (with no script or cohesive production plan), Godard took heavy inspiration from the iconography of Jean Cocteau and the poetry of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Jorge Luis Borges, driving his film distinctly away from the genre tropes which had made the book and film series popular, and towards a more ambiguous morality play on free will and human nature. The screen treatment that was given to investors was ultimately nothing but a hurried sham created by the uncredited assistant director Charles Bitsch, which retained almost no resemblance to the finished project.

One of the reasons for this was that most of Alphaville was improvised on the fly. From the dialogue, to the locations where it was filmed - no sets were constructed, nor were any special effects used, just the actors and the streets of 1960s Paris, France. This allowed Godard the free range to experiment with his cast, creating a film with a near-dreamlike air and pace, exploring attraction, perversion, and freedom of the subconciousness, continuing to drift even further from the typical rye, sharp-tongued combacks and classic femme fatales of the Lemmy Caution series. When the film was finally shown to the financiers before its official premiere, most reacted quite negatively to the final cut, with many demanding their investments repaid. The film would release to a largely lukewarm reception from critics and audiences and, for a time, lid from many people’s memories without much afterthought - just a weird Lemmy Caution movie that really wasn’t a Lemmy Caution movie.

But by the time I had watched Alphaville for the first time in 2012 while attending film school, it had long been solidified as one of the great examples of the French New Wave done right, and has existed as one of my favorite science-fiction films ever since. The power of the work comes from the contemplative performances by Constantine and Karina, who play so perfectly off one another that I could not begin to imagine a different casting choice, and the gorgeous cinematography by Raoul Coutard. While the film is almost nothing like the series in which it resides, I honestly am able to pull so much more from my experiences with this singular entry than the whole of the Lemmy Caution franchise that I have had the chance to see - it’s beautiful, ugly, brazen, and nuanced all at once. It screams old school noir while positing new scientific ideas and filmic techniques vastly alien to the genre; and such a sublime experiment of hard-boiled thrillers combining with science-fiction wouldn’t succeed on the same scale until the release of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner in 1982.

Thankfully, the brave souls over at Kino Lorber wanted to re-release this film for the next generation of budding cinephiles, and have put out a slick 4K restoration Blu-ray. However, while the film is polished and looking better than ever, the supplemental features tagging along are a bit underwhelming. While the introduction by Colin MacCabe (his name is misspelt on the box cover and in the Blu-ray main menu) is an interesting quick set-up for the film, it doesn’t provide many more details that aren’t readily known. An audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas is buttressed by a video interview with Karina, reminiscing on Godard as well as her work on Alphaville, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

While not the most robust release by Kino Lorber, it is well worth the decent asking price considering the historic and emotional weight of the film, the added information that is included through Lucas’ commentary, and the gorgeous 4k restoration. But for those wanting a deep dive into the making of Alphaville, you’ll have to look somewhere else.


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