Alphaville (1965) and Godard The Humanist?

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“That’s always how it is. You never understand anything and, in the end, it kills you.”

As a simple rule of thumb — a heuristic if you will — you can learn much about a person based on what camp they fall into when it comes to the Nouvelle Vague. For simplicity’s sake, let’s suggests we have Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and “Other” (We’ll unfairly stuff Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, The Left Bank, and all the rest here).

Many probably wouldn’t need this scenario. All it takes is a one-word, guttural response: “Godard” or “Truffaut” For me, it’s Truffaut. It’s as if the wavelength he operates on so often connects with me. Whereas with Godard it’s always more a matter of admiration for his prolific creative powers and the intellect buried in each of his projects. I appreciate him from an analytical distance.

From the outset, Alphaville epitomizes the dichotomy of Godard: both the brilliance and what can make him utterly maddening at times. He’s the perpetual visionary iconoclast and artistic maverick like few others before or after (and he’s still at it!).

We’re met with a blinking light, like an interrogation lamp, shining down on the audience. The opening voiceover relates, “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by spoken word. Legend remolds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.” This is our introduction to the computerized brain and technological chimera: Alpha 60.

Godard’s protagonist functions a bit like a world-wearied Buster Keaton in his later years. Lines covering his stone face are perfect for suggesting that he’s seen the world. This alone makes him sufficient, but expatriate Eddy Considine was also known in France for his long connection with the serialized crime detective Lemmy Caution. Here he is tasked with missions, but as should be expected with noir storytelling, each successive leg feels more befuddling than the last.

Godard took Caution to the extreme, totally untethered out in his devised limbo of clunky Parisian sci-fi. It’s the profundity of taking the labels of the future (my labels, not his) and making them feel mundane, like the contemporary moment. Still, it’s hardly a stretch to call Alphaville a forerunner to HAL,  Blade Runner, or even Altman’s Long Goodbye, a film where you have a dissonance between worlds and time frames.

There is one moment when the all-knowing voice says something to the effect that there is never the past or the future. There is only the present — where we can exist right now. So, really, there is not an issue of incongruity because everything we see is accepted as it is, functioning in this landscape as one.

Godard, working with his famed collaborator Raoul Coutard, initially doesn’t even bother with chiaroscuro, but instead an utterly binary palette. Horizontal slats of darkness above strips of light or vice versa. A cigarette and gun in Caution’s hand are both visible, while his entire face is literally pitch black.

Getting to Alphaville and a hotel in the heart of this metropolis is a trip. The lobby feels conventional enough. This is a mere extension of the Parisian landscape. And yet he gets led to his room by a lady who looks suspiciously like a lady of a night (especially when her clothes start coming off), and Godard adds another lovely non-sequitur when a thug all of the sudden materializes in the bathroom leading to a stylized struggle.

Our tough guy runs for his gun on the bed and shots ring out through the room. He makes the agitated but lucid observation moments later, “Everything weird is normal” in this town. He’s never been more correct.

We get a suggestion of what Godard is playing with — the conventions and ideas he wants to tinker around with — as both an artistic and intellectual exercise. Beatrice, the first of several femme fatales, we find out, is a level-three seductress. It’s all too apparent the misogynism has not evaporated in this alternate world.

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Anna Karina appears next as the daughter of a high-ranking official with intimate knowledge of Alpha 60. Caution christens her a “pretty sphinx,” and she is an unsuspecting product of the disconcerting sci-fi dystopia that has overtaken society. Ironically, it comes packaged a lot like Paris in the 1960s run by capitalists.

As far as gadgets go, Caution employs a portable lighter-intercom slightly less ostentatious than Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. There are government-sanctioned executions for those showing sentimentality, where the festivities are made into a bit of a water aerobics showcase. Another popular form of entertainment is theater executions — the electric chair in more diverting circumstances.

Logic is law. Tears and love are among those things outlawed. No one comprehends what “conscience” means anymore. I even made the initial assumption the books in the hotel rooms were Gideon Bibles. However, it turns out, “The Bible” is not theological but linguistic, in the form of a dictionary, as delivered by Jean-Pierre Leaud in a blink of a cameo. When words get eradicated from the cultural lexicon new editions are published and disseminated to the public.

As the tenets of society get more and more perplexing, Caution’s mission begins to spiral into chaos, toward the final destruction of the mechanical beast. Godard chops up cinematic reality with disruptive negative images that do feel otherworldly. There are car chases, murders, and corpses of those asphyxiated splayed on the floor. It seems Alphaville really is crumbling from the inside out.

The movie itself is full of these deconstructions, clever amalgams of Godard’s cultural proclivities, and his own personal wizardry. But if we are to fall back on my totally unessential litmus test, he rarely touches me to the degree Truffaut is capable of. There’s never the same laughter or warmth emanating from his characters.

Yes, in Breathless (1960) and Vivre sa Vie (1962) they come the closest and there are extended periods that speak to me, momentarily touching my heart and my soul, if I can be so transparent. But at a certain point, they end because Godard is not in the business of humanity as much as he is in the business of the mechanisms of cinema itself. He is the great artist. Truffaut the great humanist. In turn, each affinity made them into two of the most passionate filmmakers the world has ever known.

Both very avid, opinionated, obsessive cineastes. It even drove a wedge between them in later years after their catalytic collaborations in the early 60s. It’s not all that unsurprising. Arguably their most similar films conceptually, are vastly different in both vision and execution.

Consider Contempt (1963) and Day for Night (1973) or even Shoot The Piano Player (1961) and Alphaville (1965). The first pair act as two entirely singular odes to the art of filmmaking. The latter two are indebted to the glories of film noir and other cheap genre fare.

But again, it feels like Truffaut is far more capable of humanity. You never get the same sense of transparency from Godard. There is even a feeling he relishes his status as this cryptic figure — a reputation, I might add, he has maintained for most of his career.

And yet even Godard, with all his enigmatic stylings, can continually surprise me like so many others. This is his ability to morph with the times and take on new forms like a Bob Dylan — to make a flawed musical comparison. For me, it was the final line of his movie — all but forcing me to eat my words — forcing me to feel empathy.

Natascha remembers how to say “I love you” as they drive away from the hysteria of Alphaville back to the Outer Countries. For Godard, this is a heady statement, the height of sentimentality even. It’s unexpected but fitting, his constant muse throughout the 60s, Anna Karina, emblematic of his most fertile creative period, it’s her words that ultimately define Alphaville. I love you. Maybe Godard is a humanist after all. At the very least, Karina in all her affection helps to humanize him.

4/5 Stars

Note: Since writing this piece, Anna Karina passed away on December 14th, 2019. R.I.P. to a legend. 

Review: Vivre sa Vie (1962)

vivre-sa-vieThe opening credits of Vivre sa Vie commence with the opening note “dedicated to B-movies” and indeed many of Jean-Luc Godard’s best films could make the same claim. They’re smalltime stories about little people living rather pathetic lives if you wish to be brutally honest. This isn’t Hollywood.

Opening titles aside, we meet our main characters from behind, their backs to the camera in the throes of a minor spat. It acts as the subject for the first of the director’s 12 tableaux that make up the film rather like chapters in a book following the life of our heroine Nana (Anna Karina). Next, comes pinball games, Nana’s occupation as a Record Shop attendant and other mundane moments.

The passage of time caused me to forget that Nana goes to a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her own life witnessed in the eyes of Joan–a heroine that she easily empathizes with for her own amount of suffering and pain. It’s difficult to decipher who Nana feels more connected to, Joan of Arc or the actress Maria Falconetti herself. Because the truth is, Nana too was trying to make it as an actress, even being featured in a film or a play or something or other. It didn’t work out.

As the story evolves, we gradually begin to see her plight more clearly. It comes slowly at first before fully establishing itself. She goes down the rabbit whole quite by chance, taking on a very different occupation. It’s pitiful really, she looks more like a frightened rabbit than a woman of the street.

Her aspirations of catching the eye of some director are instead channeled towards Raoul, the pimp who gets her started and shows her the ropes of the trade. In some ways, it feels like he owns her, and yet Nana still strives to lead her own life. One of the moments she gives the illusion of happiness is in all places a pool hall as the jukebox grooves away and she shimmies with it. But in this moment as with so many others, it seems as if she’s constantly under the gaze of men. She’s constantly trying to earn their affection and in some sense earn her own worth. Whether or not they give it is another matter and that’s the great tragedy of Nana’s life.

In some of the film’s final interludes, she finds time to wax philosophical with an old thinker on a number of topics from personal responsibility to issues of free will. He further asserts that the more one talks, the less the words mean. Perhaps Godard took that to mean form over dialogue.

At times it’s as if Godard’s camera is constantly on a swiveling axis or even a pendulum, focusing on a figure and swinging back and forth between it’s two subjects. No cuts are necessary and it’s oddly compelling.

Look at his work hastily here and it could be misinterpreted as shoddy and that could be but more likely is the fact that Godard was always thumbing his nose at convention. He was never beholden to classical Hollywood but he did have heroes. The likes of Sam Fuller, Fritz Lang, and Nicholas Ray. Men with their own aesthetics and Godard was forging his own path. Only someone like Godard would have the audacity of having us watch the entire transcription of a letter. Why? Because he wanted to.

Vivre sa Vie did not ignite the Nouvelle Vague but in many ways, it stoked the flames and Godard perhaps unwittingly gave nod to another landmark film from his compatriot Francois Truffaut, Jules et Jim, which finds its way up on a movie marquee.

Perhaps what’s easiest to take away from Godard’s work here with longtime collaborator Raoul Coutard is that he’s constantly messing with our classical cinematic sensibilities. The way he cuts (or doesn’t), the way he interrupts sound, the way he moves between intertitles and so on. It’s still his and it still disrupts the status quo that we are used to even as seasoned viewers of visual content.

For some, it can come off as tiresome, even pretentious but it’s undoubtedly Godard and highlighting the entire narrative is the quietly yet still evocative performance of Anna Karina. Her doe eyes speak volumes by themselves.  They truly were the power couple of the French New Wave. He being the audacious artist, she his inspired muse. However, it begs the question, if there is any stock in the parallelism between film and reality. Nana/Anna being controlled by the men in her life or was it truly her life to live?

4.5/5 Stars

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)

cleo-from-5-to-7It’s a joy to watch Agnes Varda dance. Or, more precisely, it’s a joy to watch her camera dance. Because that’s exactly what it does. Her film opens in color, catching our attention, vibrant and alive as the credits roll and a young woman (Corinne Marchand) gets her fortune read by an old lady. She’s worried about her fate. We can gather that much and this is her way of coping. Superstition and tarot cards but she’s trying and the results are not quite to her fancy.

And from that point on Varda’s camera continues to move dynamically but her film quickly turns to black and white as if to say something. Our main heroine, this young, attractive singer named Cleo has sunk into a sense of despondency. For the next two hours, she must wait it out to hear the news from her doctor. The news being whether or not she has been stricken with cancer. And if cancer then recovery or even….death. This is her existential crisis.

In the following moments, the camera falls back as an observer even donning her point of view from time to time and that’s the true enjoyment of this film. There are stakes laid out right from beginning and those remain in the back of our minds but it’s really about how we get there. How she gets there.

Cleo walks the streets of Paris browsing shop windows for hats, taking cab rides through the city, patronizing local establishments, resting at her flat with her assistant, and even calling on friends.

It becomes obvious that Cleo needs other people in her life whether she knows it or not. There’s an importance in solititude when she gets to examine the passing world and take in the serenity of running water in a park on a peaceful afternoon. But it’s the people that bring some color to her life. True, she does note that everyone spoils me, no one loves me, undoubtedly bemoaning the quick house call by her lover, the doting of her houskeeper, and the comical buffoonery of her pianist and lyricist duo.

But she also calls on her friend Dorothee who models by day in a sculptor’s studio taking in the bustling Parisian streets with all sorts of people but more importantly time for all sorts of conversation both superficial and sincere. They visit the local cinema and are treated to a silent comedy short (starring Nouvelle Vague power couple Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina). As the girl’s boyfriend rightly ascertains comedy is good for the soul. It can help alleviate a world of hurt.

Cleo’s final confidante comes quite by chance. A soldier on leave from Algeria as it turns out. He’s at first forward, then didactic, and finally utterly sincere. He’s perhaps just the type of person Cleo was looking for without even realizing it — someone who is perfectly obliging with conversation when she feels completely taciturn. Theirs is a quick friendship as he agrees to go with her to the hospital for the impending news and she, in turn, looks to see him off to the train station as he goes back from whence he came.

And does the film’s conclusion suffice? Not particularly. It’s abrupt and unsatisfying after all that prolonged wait but curiously Cleo seems at peace. Perhaps that is enough. What this film does impeccably is capture a moment as if it was pure and true and utterly authentic. It takes real world issues and a real world setting, synthesizing them into a fictional storyline that still functions as the every day would.

This is the world of the Cold War, war in Algeria, Edith Piaf in the hospital, Elmer Gantry, Bridget Bardot, and French pop music. It’s all melded together, bits and pieces, and moments and ideas and snapshots into a thoroughly engaging piece that becomes a sort of rumination on life and death and all those things that complicate living. If it all sounds like a jumbled mess of words it is and instead of trying to comprehend it by any amount of diction you should do yourself an immense favor and see Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 for yourself. If you are disappointed then I am truly sorry for you. Because it’s a wonderful film.

4.5/5 Stars

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard and starring Jean Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, this film is chock full of poetic musings, literary allusions, pop culture images, and so on. Belmondo is a Frenchman who is unhappy with his life and marriage. When a young woman he is already acquainted with comes to watch his child, they eventually elope together. Ferdinand goes with Marianne to her apartment only to find a corpse and they must flee the scene from two gangsters. Now on the run, the two lovebirds are intent on living life and making their own Hollywood inspired movie that they can both star in. Their aspirations lead them to live a wild life on the move, but finally they settle down for a awhile in the French Riviera. Ferdinand is content with a quiet life of philosophizing but Marianne is discontent with this life right out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. They finally move on and stop at a night club where they face one of their pursuers. After some mishaps Ferdinand and his girl get separated. Finally they are reunited only to have Marianne turn on “Pierrot” for her real boyfriend. The final moments are filled with gunfire, a suitcase full of money, blue paint, and dynamite. You could say that everything blew up in Ferdinand’s face, and you would be quite correct.

4/5 Stars

Band of Outsiders (1964)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, this film follows a young woman who meets two  crooks in an English language class. Through narration we learn that she told them about a cache of money she knows of and so they get her to help them swipe it. They both fight for her affection and ultimately the thug Arthur wins out. Despite Odile’s apprehension at taking the money from her aunt’s home, they continue to get the plan ready. Arthur’s uncle now wants in and then the plan changes again because the owner of the money is gone a day earlier. From this point everything begins to go wrong and after a horrible botched attempt the three culprits flee the scene with little to show for their caper. Arthur makes up an excuse to return and Odile and Franz drive off but they return when trouble seems imminent. Back at the house Arthur is confronted by his uncle and there is more bloodshed. Afterwards Odile and Franz again flee heading to South America while the narrator promises a sequel in the near future. This film unabashedly proclaims to be Nouvelle wave even going so far as having it printed on a store banner. Again, Godard combines his love of American pulp fiction and artistic experimentation to create yet another tragic tale. The film gives a nod to Hollywood crime films and also features several famous sequences. Some high points include the moment of silence, the spontaneous dance in the café, and of course the run through the Louvre. In my mind, Pulp Fiction owes at least something to Godard right here.

 

4/5 Stars

Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

ef6de-vivresavieposterDirected by Jean-Luc Godard and starring Anna Karina, this French film shot like a documentary begins up close and personal in the life of a 22 year old woman named Nana. In 12 separate scenes we slowly are given a view into her life. She goes from leaving her husband, trying to get into the movies, and then finally begins prostituting herself for easy money. All the while this beautiful young lady struggles with men. Here interactions sometimes leave her somber and other times light-hearted. Through it all she tries to live her life the way she sees fit. She might be playing pinball, working in a record shop, viewing a movie, or attempting to pick someone up. She is so alluring in a quiet sort of way and as observers we begin to feel pity for her more than anything. In the end tragedy strikes and all of a sudden it is no longer her life to live. This film had moments where it became talkie however the narrative divided into 12 sequences and the constantly swiveling camera were major attributes. Furthermore, this film appears as if it will be an in depth character study and yet by the time it abruptly ends we hardly know much of anything about Nana besides what is on the outside. In real life Anna Karina would be Godard’s wife for a time and he used her in many of his works.

4.5/5 Stars