Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 40min

Highly stylised, futuristic visual designs do not always mesh so well with low-budget location shooting, but for a postmodern master of avant-garde cinematic form like Jean-Luc Godard, such delightful incongruity only strengthens his genre deconstructions. Alphaville is his take on film noir, but it is also a science-fiction set in a dystopian city, with hints of George Orwell and German expressionism, as well as the seeds of what would later become 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Why then has it fallen so far by the wayside when considering the widespread reverence held for those pieces of art that influenced it, and which it influenced in turn? Perhaps the answer can be found in Godard’s characteristic dissonance that rejects complete narrative immersion, striving to understand how authoritarianism is represented through the medium of film, rather than any traditional examination of the ideology itself. With that set as his thesis, Alphaville doesn’t just take a stand against artistic and emotional censorship, but rather becomes an act of creative rebellion in its very construction.

With the film’s exterior scenes being shot largely on the streets of Paris at night, it does not take a huge leap for Godard to reimagine its modernist buildings and streets as a futuristic society crawling with shadows and pierced by stark, white lights emanating from neon signs, cars, and streetlamps. This may be an economical choice, but it is also a purposefully stylistic one, turning away from artificial sets in favour of realistic environments that seem both familiar and slightly alien.

The streets of Paris at night become the science-fiction dystopia of Alphaville, with each light radiating an eerie aura and bouncing off the wet pavement. A unique blend of futuristic visual designs and location shooting.
Modern architecture that belongs to both 1960s Paris and Godard’s bureaucratic technocracy – he is endlessly inventive with his location scouting and the way he frames his structures.

Ruling this metropolis is Alpha 60, a Big Brother figure that manifests a menacing, croaky voice paired with a single, circular light, occasionally beaming out from behind whirring fan blades like some mechanical piece of artificial intelligence. Alpha 60 is not our protagonist, but it is essentially our narrator, with its ominous voiceover indoctrinating us into its cold rule of didactic reasoning. Its assertion that Alphaville’s technocracy is founded on logic is absurdly inconsistent with its resistance to questioning, though it is evident that the blind acceptance of rules it demands simply serves to suppress anything vaguely human.

“The acts of man through the centuries will gradually destroy them. I, Alpha 60, I am merely the logical means of this destruction.”

Alpha 60’s design is a prototype for HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not a surprise given Stanley Kubrick’s praise for this film.
Expressionistic lighting doesn’t need to be complicated – a single, hanging light bulb does the trick here on this stairwell, swinging back and forth.

Lemmy Caution is the craggy-faced secret agent from the ‘Outside Countries’ who comes into Alphaville with a mission to end Alpha 60’s reign of tyranny, but in his character design he bears far greater resemblance to a straight-talking, Philip Marlowe-type detective, ripped from the pages of a pulpy Raymond Chandler novel. Paired with this hard-boiled archetype is Anna Karina’s femme fatale, Natacha von Braun, who has lived her life by the rigid rules set by her father, who is also the city’s malevolent creator. To her, words like “love” and “conscience” are completely foreign, both being banned from Alphaville’s dialect that is specifically designed to limit freedom of thought. Upon meeting Lemmy, we can see pieces of his passion bleed into her, destabilising the brittle foundations of Alpha 60’s despotism.

Anna Karina on her run of films with Godard is magnetic as a femme fatale, proving her own versatility through different archetypes and genres.
You have to admire Godard’s ability to pick out these locations as backdrops. A wild, delirious wallpaper pattern to match the narrative.

Like The Big Sleep and so many other film noirs that came before, Alphaville possesses a dizzying plot that lands us at the mercy of a shady world which cannot be fully penetrated, constantly moving two paces ahead of any single character or viewer. Beyond the shadowy city streets, the bright interiors of buildings become havens from this darkness, lining ceilings with rows upon rows of lights caught from low angles that press down upon our characters. As Godard’s handheld camera passes through the modernist architecture in long takes, we acclimate to this fascinating environment of glass elevators and elaborate spiral staircases that simultaneously belong to 1960s Paris and reach into some progressive vision of its future.

Rows of light fixtures from low angles, spiral staircases, glass windows, long corridors, angular geometry – perhaps Godard’s greatest achievement in shooting architecture, crafting a world of harsh modernity.

It is not merely the immediate atmosphere that consumes us in Alphaville though, as Godard goes on to push his rejection of narrative transparency even further with formal cutaways to the Parisian neon street signs spelling out symbols and equations. These limited, inflexible forms of linguistic expression break up scenes like punctuation marks, reminding us of the world beyond Lemmy’s immediate experience, as well as Godard’s own presence in this story as a disturber of its continuity. Similarly, the suspenseful musical theme of accented horns and strings at first simply sits in the background, but each time it is repeated it announces itself just a little bit more, denying us the cadenced resolution we crave. With his trademark jump cuts and direct addresses to the camera topping off his self-aware style, he keeps us constantly living on a layer removed from the story, recognising the artifice of every technique, motif, and archetype that defines this film, and the science-fiction and noir genres at large.

Godard’s cutaways to neon signs display symbols and equations, underlining the sinister system of logic governing this society.

As Lemmy achieves his great victory over Alpha 60 towards the end, shots of unprocessed negative film invert shades of black and white while the city falls apart, its systematic oppression finally being reversed and Godard’s loud, audacious style proclaiming itself within the very fabric of the projected reel. Like his protagonist, he stages his own angry, one-man riot against the stifling limitations imposed upon artists within the old Alphaville, distinctly exerting his creative power as a director, not just a mere observer of events. The citizens’ conditioning to replace questions of “Why?” with firm statements of “Because” is the antithesis of everything he stands for, most of all regarding cinematic convention. It is not enough to simply continue film noir and science fiction traditions, but getting to their reasons for existence by bringing them to our attention and stretching them to their limits is the basis of his playfully wicked experimentations in Alphaville, confidently asserting the inalienable right to imagination and curiosity among all humans, whether they be real or fictional.

Negative film as Alphaville is inverted on itself – a bold stylistic move from Godard.

Alphaville is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965)

Sergei Parajanov | 1hr 50min

It takes a story as rooted in convention and archetypes as this ‘Romeo and Juliet’ inspired plot to imbue Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors with solid narrative form, as Sergei Parajanov certainly needs it to hold together his wildly avant-garde experiments in style. Comparisons may be drawn to Mikhail Kalatozov, his Soviet contemporary of similarly Georgian origin, especially in the untethered camerawork swinging through scenes with reckless abandon, and the low angles framing faces against monochromatic skies. But where Kalatozov was an actively propagandistic filmmaker working for the USSR government and gently pushing the boundaries of socialist realism, Parajanov broke all the rules in inventing his own unhinged, magical realist style that would only serve to inflame national authorities.

Parajanov constructing crosses in his mise-en-scène as formal markers of tragedy.

In a Hutsul village nestled in a Ukrainian mountain range, a young man, Ivan, falls in love with Marichka, a woman who lies on the other side of a feudal divide. When she passes away shortly after their marriage, he grows depressed, unable to shake her ghostly memory. Even when he finally remarries, her presence continues to be felt, and gradually erodes his relationship with his new wife.

Parajanov has no pretences about the simplicity of this narrative. It is a folk tale, first and foremost, powerfully rooted in Hutsul customs and Orthodox traditions which remain unifying forces through the clashes and tragedies of Ivan’s life. When misfortune strikes, Parajanov sets up crosses in his scenery, a constant reminder of how this community turns to spiritualism when confronted by life’s hardships, especially marking occasions of weddings and funerals with their own uniquely Hutsul rituals. Having been raised in this culture of pervasive religious dominance, Ivan comes to depend on his connection to the divine as a manner to transcend the material world and maintain contact with his lost love. As we witness in a colourful, hypnotic montage dissolving between Ivan’s thoughtful face in prayer and Orthodox iconography of Christ, this belief is his saving grace, injecting a peaceful radiance in the middle of an otherwise entirely black-and-white sequence of the film following Marichka’s death. Though the montage is short-lived, colour does eventually return to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors with the arrival of Palahna, Ivan’s new love, this time becoming a more permanent fixture.

A colour montage made up of long dissolves, firmly binding Ivan to his Orthodox beliefs.

With the introduction of pagan phenomena in the film’s final act, the Christian bedrock of Ivan’s life starts to destabilise, as restless spirits and sorcerers disrupt the Hutsul traditions that Parajanov has so painstakingly detailed. Still, this shift in focus does not even slightly signify a shift in momentum, as his camera continues to spin, whip, twirl, tilt, pan, and track characters across the village’s rocky rivers, snowy forests, and rustic interiors, finding strikingly surreal compositions in each of these settings. Not everything he does falls in line with the rest of the film, as at times Parajanov seems more invested in his erratic whims of visual artistry than tying it all together, but there is still powerful form to this fable. In clashing directly with the religious and cultural customs it is depicting, the disorientating, energetic experiments of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors effectively shake off the stagnancy of this village’s repetitive lifestyle, instead settings its sights on the haunting mysticism which lies just beyond the boundaries of a narrow-minded society, and within the minds of its own characters.

Too many painterly images to include on one page. Parajanov is a thoroughly experimental artist, always finding the most strikingly audacious angle or composition for any given scene.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is currently unavailable to watch in Australia.