A film from out of the past, set in the future, and more than ever concerning the present — that can only be “Alphaville,” Jean-luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi detective story and a work that rages against the machine decades ahead of schedule. Rarely re-released to theaters and hard to find on video, it’s appearing at the Kendall this week in a restored digital print with fresh subtitles. But nothing about this strange, moving work of agit-pop has ever seemed out of date. If anything, “Alphaville” moves closer to relevance with every passing year.
How relevant? You could read it as the story of one lone man versus the Internet and our brave new wired world. The hero is Lemmy Caution, a trench-coated Bogart figure played by American actor Eddie Constantine, who had made a series of European B-films as Lemmy before Godard got hold of him. Aging, scarred, deadpan, and weary, Constantine’s not much of an actor but he has incredible presence, which is all the young director wanted.
Lemmy ventures into the city of Alphaville, where an omniscient computer named Alpha 60 — voiced not with HAL-like calm but the croak of an actor whose vocal cords had been shot away in World War II — runs everything and where emotions are punishable by death. This city of tomorrow is played by the New Paris of 1965: high-rise apartment buildings, concrete office towers, edifices of glass. Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot in black and white at night with available light, and the locations feel eerie and emptied out. The movie says that the future and its discontents are here with us, right now. If you care to look around, you’ll see that this is so. “Alphaville” was just the first artifact to point it out.
Caution is seeking a vanished spy named Henri Dickson (played by the scuttling Hollywood character actor Akim Tamiroff, in his final role) and also the master builder of Alphaville, Leonard Von Braun (Howard Vernon). There are chases and gun battles, all filmed with sloppy Pop Art immediacy, and there are nightmarish set pieces like a mass execution set in a swimming pool, where citizens who have been caught weeping are shot while standing on diving boards and finished off by women swimmers with knives in their bikinis.
Among other things, the movie is a last-ditch love letter to the director’s muse and — as of a few weeks before production started — his ex-wife, Anna Karina. The actress stayed in the film; rarely has a camera hovered over a beloved’s face with such helpless, useless devotion. Karina plays Natacha Von Braun, the inventor’s daughter who is employed as a “seductress” in the film’s Orwellian society, her tattooed number linking her to holocausts of the past and dystopias to come. She no longer understands what “love” means, since Alpha 60 is purging the dictionary of words relating to emotion. On one level, then, “Alphaville” is Godard’s sad, brilliant attempt to get his wife to say she loves him one last time.
No one makes movies like this anymore, slapdash on the surface and burning with mad poetry beneath. It’s almost impossible to remember the period from 1963 to 1968, when Godard seemed like the Dylan of cinema, inscrutable and necessary. Today, at 83, he continues to direct — his 39th feature, “Goodbye to Language,” will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this month — but despite sparks of influence showing up in the work of such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Harmony Korine, Godard has long since dropped off the map. There are people who probably think that’s a good thing, but movies and the culture surrounding them are poorer for it. More than ever, we need our provocateurs. “Alphaville” remains a furious bulletin from yesterday, tomorrow, and this precise moment.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.