ALPHAVILLE: A STRANGE ADVENTURE OF LEMMY CAUTION (ALPHAVILLE: UNE ÉTRANGE AVENTURE DE LEMMY CAUTION) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
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“Sometimes, reality is too complex for oral communication. But legend embodies it in a form which enables it to spread all over the world,” a growly, disembodied, mechanical-like voice says at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s futuristic sci-fi noir thriller, Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution. Godard’s 1965 black-and-white masterpiece takes place in an unidentified time period in a dark, unadorned, special-effects-free Paris. A tough-as-nails man in hat and trench coat named Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) has arrived in Alphaville from the Outlands, claiming to be journalist Ivan Johnson, on assignment from the Figaro-Pravda newspaper. But his real mission is to first find fellow agent Henry Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), then capture or kill Alphaville leader and death-ray inventor Professor Vonbraun (Howard Vernon), the former Leonard Nosferatu. A Guadalcanal veteran who drives a Ford Galaxie, Caution — a character Constantine played in a series of films based on the novels of Peter Cheyney, including This Man Is Dangerous, Dames Get Along, and Your Turn, Darling — is a no-nonsense guy who takes nothing for granted. “All things weird are normal in this whore of cities,” he tells a blond seductress third class, who apparently comes with his hotel room. Documenting everything he sees with an Instamatic flash camera, Caution (perhaps a stand-in for Godard himself?) is soon visited by Natasha Vonbraun (Anna Karina), the professor’s daughter, setting off on an Orwellian journey through a grim city where poetry and emotion, and such words as “love,” “why,” and “conscience,” are banned in favor of “because” and “Silence. Logic. Security. Prudence,” where the hotel Bible is actually an ever-changing dictionary and enemies of the state are killed in swimming pools and pulled out by clones of Esther Williams, all overseen by a computer known as Alpha 60 (whose text, based on writings by Jorge Luis Borges, is eerily spoken by a man without a larynx, using a mechanized voice box).
Meanwhile, Caution travels everywhere with his paperback copy of Paul Éluard’s Capital of Pain, which includes such short poems as “To Be Caught in the Trap,” “In the Cylinder of Tribulations,” and “The Big Uninhabitable House.” Paul Misraki’s relentless noir score fits right in with Raoul Coutard’s bleakly beautiful cinematography, which often shows Caution through glass doors and windows and in enclosed spaces. Godard infuses Alphaville with cinematic flourishes, inside jokes, political statements, and intellectual references, directly and indirectly evoking Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, Orson Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, Chris Marker’s La Jetée, American cartoons (a pair of white-coated professors who announce a memory problem with 183 Omega Minus are named Eckel and Jeckel, played by Cahiers du cinema’s Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean-André Fieschi), and even his own films, with Jean-Pierre Léaud making a very brief cameo as a waiter. But one of the myriad pleasures of Alphaville — which won the Golden Bear at Berlin and at one time had the working title Tarzan vs. IBM — is that it can be enjoyed on many different levels, as dystopian warning, fascist parable, cinema about cinema, individual vs. the state thriller, or, quite simply, classic French noir. A digital restoration of Alphaville, with a new translation and subtitles by Lenny Borger and Cynthia Schoch, is screening February 7-13 at Film Forum.