While streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon make classic movies easily accessible, they simply cannot recreate the power of a proper theater. Cinema’s greatest pictures take on a kinetic scale that surpasses television as a visual medium. The movements within a frame are designed for enlarged projection. Formats for at-home viewing invariably shrink the size and space of an image into a more convenient shape. To my great delight, Pasadena’s Playhouse 7 theater brought French director Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 film “Alphaville” back to the big screen Feb. 19. Godard’s romantic approach to dystopian fiction was featured as part of Laemmle Theatre’s Anniversary Classics Series.
The company dedicated its screening to the late actress Anna Karina, who passed away last December. She was married to Godard from 1961–1964 and starred in several of his first films. As “Alphaville’s” Natacha von Braun, Karina delivers her most heartfelt performance. This role challenged the charming actress to convey a unique emotional crisis. The film takes place in a futuristic city where people are programmed by an intelligent supercomputer and any act of irrationality is punishable by death. Secret agent Lemmy Caution is tasked with destroying the machine and teaching Natacha to say, “I love you.” Godard’s vision of technological authoritarianism proved ahead of its time, and his observational warnings still resonate 55 years later.
Alphaville was Godard’s ninth picture in six years. As the whiz kid of the revolutionary French New Wave movement, his tactile style liberated him from film’s formal conventions. He created original and innovative work at an unparalleled pace. When assessing his impact in 1967, critic Pauline Kael noted, “The most gifted younger directors and student filmmakers all over the world know that he has opened up a new kind of movie-making.” Godard’s imagination led him to do more than just visualize stories. His films expressed personal and political ideas. In 1967, he repurposed “Alphaville’s” dystopian themes for his anarchic masterpiece “Weekend.” Both films are marked by an artist brave enough to analyze his own political ambivalence. Instead of an urban apocalypse by way of a soulless supercomputer, “Weekend” shows society collapsing under the weight of consumer culture. Godard’s fascination with technology and pop art was motivated by more than just the urge to propagandize a singular ideology. He routinely challenged his own beliefs while simultaneously asserting them with insightful wit.
When Agent Caution arrives in Alphaville, cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s shots are deliberately dark. On the big screen, this effect is overwhelming. His black and white film stock adds an intriguing layer of mystery to a story that already takes place almost entirely at night. The city itself is a place that lacks colorful warmth and feeling. Citizens of all class types are alienated from one another as emotions are effectively outlawed by a fascist computer named Alpha 60. This machine forces human beings to convert into robotic mutants. Godard’s decision to shoot in simple black and white calls attention to Alpha 60‘s strictly upheld logical versus illogical binary. One of the director’s greatest talents is his ability to develop a strong sense of symmetry between form and idea. At times, the film uses visual puns to create the sequencing of a comic book strip. Godard rendered his love for different genres into deconstruction. He incorporated inspiration from films, books, philosophies and global politics into “Alphaville’s” narrative.
Natacha von Braun’s connection to Caution is her only chance to break the spell. By falling in love, she violates the computer’s code and rediscovers emotion. However, their bond is tested because her father is the scientist responsible for building Alpha 60. Caution questions if he can trust Natacha because his official assignment is to kill Mr. von Braun. When she reveals that she was born in the Outlands, an area outside the city, Caution becomes motivated to help her restore her capacity for natural emotion. A return to balance is possible because those born outside of Alphaville had experiences of life before they were programmed. Godard offers his faith in the idea that the human spirit and will to survive persists despite oppression from a tyrannical system. Alpha 60 criminalizes poetry and emotional expression, but Caution discovers that even brutal legal codes cannot suppress the instincts of a person who desires freedom.
American actor Eddie Constantine’s performance as Caution is notable for his wrinkled scowl and worn-out frog face. Despite his cold disposition, he is still the most alive person in the city. Successfully destroying Alpha 60 is a heroic deed, and it would not have been possible without Natacha’s transformation. Anna Karina plays her part like she has the physique of a praying mantis. The whole world seems to stop on a dime when she bats her big bug eyes at the camera.
Godard saw technological advancement as inevitable, and he probed the way people might respond. Even if computers enhance our intelligence, they alone cannot solve our ethical dilemmas. “Alphaville” proved to be a great selection for Pasadena’s Playhouse 7 and Laemmle Theatre’s Anniversary Classics Series. The big screen experience of Godard’s sci-fi experiment is a real movie treat.