50 Years Ago This Week – Godard’s Alphaville in Berlin
The favorite filmmaker of many a young, hip cinephile, John-Luc Godard was at the apogee of his movie-god status in 1965 when Alphaville, his dystopian sci-fi noir took home the Golden Bear at the fifteenth Berlin film festival. The New Wave legend made an astonishing fifteen feature films from 1960 through 1967 (and eight shorts as well), heights he would never command again. After a detour into politically committed filmmaking, Godard reemerged in 1972 with the very fine Tout Va Bien (with Yves Montand and Jane Fonda), but from there spent the following forty-plus years producing largely over-praised “comebacks,” such as Numero Deux (1975), Every Man for Himself (1981) and various others.
Late Godard (or, really, non-early Godard) has its champions. But if not viewed in the context of their creator’s towering reputation, these films might easily (and plausibly) be dismissed. Indeed, beyond their arguable mediocrity these efforts are characterized by an enormous self-satisfaction and self-indulgence, as well as, it should be said, a certain unpleasantness. This point is easily misunderstood. Great films often (usually?) have unpleasant things happen in them, feature malevolent characters, and end unhappily. This does not make the film itself unpleasant, any more than the portrayal of a racist character implies that a movie is expressing a racist message, two very different things. (Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs are each very violent films. The former, much bloodier of the two, is thoughtful; the latter expresses its violence in a morally suspect way.)
Which brings us back to Godard. Heresy, perhaps, but I would argue that the characteristics that dominate his later films – indifferent plots that are little more than sketches dancing across the filmmaker’s imagination, lazy dialogue, and, too commonly, a basic meanness of spirit – are also observable at times even in the magnificent early fifteen. The big difference is that the extraordinary achievements of Godard’s early films overwhelm or obscure these blemishes.
But not always, and with decreasing success as (even these early) years passed. And despite its reputation, by Alphaville, Godard’s vices had overtaken his virtues, as they would in all of his subsequent films (yes, I’m talking to you, Weekend), with the exception of Masculin Feminin. Despite Raul Coutard’s gorgeous naked-lightbulbs black-and-white photography and a few hints of real humanity by way of Akim Tamiroff, Alphaville is a nasty (and tedious) film of superficial sloganeering.
But that’s not how we leave things, here at Mid Century Cinema. Even in dissent, we urge you to consider the cream of this crop—at a bare minimum: Breathless, A Woman is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, Contempt, Band of Outsiders, and Masculin Feminin—all made in one seven year stretch. Wow.
Breathless (Jean Pierre Melville’s cameo)
A Woman is a Woman
Band Apart (The Madison)