When Jean-Luc Godard’s portrait of a computer-controlled future society appeared in 1965, with all its New Wavey visual tics and supposedly profound observations about logic and love, it was greeted by many as some sort of revelatory modern prophecy about where the world was heading. Even the tacky pulpy framing device—with Eddie Constantine, in his signature role as hard-boiled PI Lemmy Caution, tracking down scientist-dictator Von Braun (Howard Vernon) in his intergalactic empire—registered as the perfect narrative mode for a director who, like the others of his generation, revered Hollywood noir.
In other words, “Alphaville” seemed cutting-edge in its day, especially when one compared it to that other classic portrayal of a repressive future, Fritz Lang’s 1926 “Metropolis,” which by 1965 was looking awfully dated. By contrast Godard’s film felt defiantly new and challenging.
Now, after a half-century, Rialto has released a new print of the film, which is certainly the form in which one should see it now. And “Alphaville” certainly retains interest as a historical curio that reveals a good deal about the attitudes of the French intelligentsia in the sixties, the style of the Gallic New Wave, and the general uncertainty about the future that gripped Western society in the period. It’s also one of Godard’s most watchable films—which will come as a relief to viewers who have seen only his most recent efforts, which would test the patience of a saint.
But one wouldn’t be honest if he didn’t say that it’s dated as badly in the intervening five decades as “Metropolis” had done in the four that separated it from Godard’s film. The look of the picture, which seemed so imaginative in 1965, comes across as ludicrously tacky now—an ex-cheapo attempt to visualize a futuristic state that just doesn’t cut it. And all the blather about technological regimentation and the loss of human emotion feels like so much pseudo-philosophical babble characteristic of so much second-rate French word-spinning.
There are some parts of the picture that still work—Constantine’s absurdly tough-guy persona, Anna Karina’s smoldering beauty as Von Braun’s daughter, Akim Tamiroff’s turn as a dissolute old agent, the computer’s gurgling voice, and Paul Misraki’s score, which repeatedly proclaims the advent of revelatory moments that never come. A few scenes, like the execution of dissidents in a swimming pool, with their corpses recovered by Esther Williams bathing beauties, retain their mordant humor. And one can’t help chuckle when a pretty girl identifies herself as a “seductress, third class.”
But “Alphaville” is one of those movies that looks better in retrospect than it is in reality. Students of cinema history will certainly want to see it, but they probably won’t be anxious to do so more than once. And they should watch “Metropolis” first, to put it into proper perspective.