Friday, April 15, 2011

Film Masters Spotlight: The Future According to Jean-Luc Godard

Even the production crew behind the making of Jean-Loc Godard’sAlphaville” admitted it was a “difficult film”. The sets were intricate; the execution was elaborate, and in true Godard fashion, there wasn’t always a script for the actors to study before shooting. In fact, most of what transpired during the filming process came moments before cameras rolled. Godard was a unique auteur. He didn't tell people how he wanted his scenes; he would say what he did not want from them. Isn’t that odd?

So one crazy weekend, I pulled out my stack of Jean-Luc Godard collection from its shelf, and picked out one of his most daunting works, and braced myself for a tedious ride, hoping I’d come out of it unscathed.

Ivan Johnson, a journalist from the “Outlands” arrives in Alphaville, a city governed by a “giant computer” who controls the city's serial-numbered citizens. It doesn’t take long before you realize that Johnson has a mission more confounding than snapping mundane photographs. He is, in fact, looking for a missing agent Henry Dickson (Agent X21). More importantly, he is tasked to capture the “inventor of the death ray” – Professor Leonard Von Braun, who has designed a sentient computer system called Alpha 60 that’s controlling all the affairs of the city! He meets Natasha, Von Braun’s daughter. And he must destroy Alpha 60 to rid the people from its despotic rule!

Eccentric lines inhabit most of the film, and the interaction between people feels incongruent. After all, its citizenry is turned into mindless drones, and discouraged from learning the concepts of “love” or “conscience”. When a “3rd class seductress” (a hotel “bellgirl”, really) asks Johnson, “Are you going to take a bath, sir?” He replies, “Yes, I must reflect.” Johnson’s hotel room is equipped with a Bible (every room has one) and guests are offered complimentary tranquilizers. These peculiarities are, in fact, addressed early on by Godard when Johnson (who’s really a secret agent named Lemmy Caution, valiantly played by American expat Eddie Constantine) was shown contemplating: “Something ‘s not in orbit in the capital of this Galaxy!” In one scene, a queue of men are executed by the swimming pool. Their crime? “Thinking illogically!” I knew Godard and I share similar wavelength when it comes to the fate of stupidity. LOL

The film is replete with existential musings that, at times, felt bizarre, but such is the uncompromising cinematic vision of French New Wave’s Jean-Luc Godard. His theatrical influences are further reflected when he mentions, “Some people will serve as terrible examples to those who see the world as theater, when technical power and its triumph is (sic) the only act in the repertoire!

Bathed in noirish black and white, “Alphaville” was released in 1965, and marked a salient chapter in the life of the director who started shooting the film a few days after his divorce from Anna Karina (his cinematic muse, who played Natasha) who starred in Godard’s every notable masterpiece. The mood of their relationship reflected much of Alphaville’s somber, brooding atmosphere, complete with a foreboding score from start to finish. What totally crept me out was the narrating voice from the grave – a deep cracky strange voice over, inspired by the hypnotic voice in The Testament of Dr Mabuse“.

Godard earlier wanted to use the title, “Tarzan versus IBM” instead of “Alphaville”. With a labyrinthine world of zombies in the film, it wouldn’t have been too much of a stretch. And this was early 1960s way before I was even a speck of a dust, yet Godard had fashioned and conceptualized a bizarre futuristic world so vivid and real, he didn’t even need CGI’s to make it work. And I am simply reduced to being such a fan!

Ivan Johnson aka Lemmy Caution played by American actor Eddie Constantine

Jean-Luc Godard came from an affluent family. His father was a doctor, his mother was a banker's daughter. He first started as a film critic before making movies.

Anna Karina was born in Denmark, but at the age of 18, she went to Paris and emerged as a top model for Coco Chanel and Pierre Cardin. Godard first saw her in a TV soap commercial. When he offered her a cameo in their first film together, she refused. She balked at her nude scenes. Godard came back to give her the lead for "Breathless". And the rest is history.

Godard and his leading lady, Anna Karina, during happier times.

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