(In French, On Cable TV, October 2018) I’m not working with the largest of reference pools when it comes to writer/director Jean-Luc Godard’s work, and so watching Pierrot le fou so soon after À bout de Souffle is a bit like going over much of the same terrain. Once again, we have a man (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) on the run, pursued by violent forces, followed cinéma-vérité-style with a romantic relationship complicating everything, all leading to a tragic end. This is an overly reductive plot summary, but it does encapsulate my own similar reaction to the work. Except that Pierrot le fou isn’t quite as accomplished, as vital, as interesting as À bout de souffle. This being said, it’s Godard’s first colour film and clearly a more expensive production, which does have qualities of its own, slick and colourful. The presence of women and guns ensures that it’s not uninteresting, but it does have its annoyances, from free-flowing improvisational dialogue that doesn’t have the concision best suited to those kinds of films. I’m still glad I’ve seen it, but it’s one step shy of essential.
(Kanopy streaming, September 2018) I’m watching a lot of older movies these days, but it’s hard to predict how I’m going to react to them. I like the Old Hollywood style but I don’t like neo-realism, and I can be frustratingly inconsistent on my reactions to the French New Wave—speaking the language definitely helps, although not as much as you’d think given the Atlantic gap between French dialects. Still, I had a better time than expected watching À bout de souffle for a few reasons. The biggest one, I think is a combination between a then-experimental style and a now-familiar genre story: As our no-good anti-hero kills a cop and spends the rest of the film escaping his inevitable retribution, the film plays with editing in ways rarely seen outside Russia until the late 1960s—jump cuts shorten conversations, speed up the rhythm of the movie and introduce an element of nervousness for a protagonist on the run. (And yet, in a film renowned for its frenetic editing, the most impressive shot is an unbroken sequence in which the camera slowly rotates around a room, showing the introduction of two characters. This tends to support the assertion from some of the filmmakers that the editing was really something that came up during the post-production phase of the film.) Jean-Paul Belmondo is, inevitably, incredibly compelling as the murderous lead character, channelling Bogart cool but transforming it into charisma of his own. Writer/director Jean-Luc Godard’s abilities far outstrip his meagre budget, with the film feeling like a complete artistic vision rather than being hampered by budgetary compromises and guerilla-style filmmaking. Not all of À bout de souffle is good (some of the more philosophical or romantic interludes can feel as incredibly pretentious as some of the worst of the New Wave) but the high points are high, and there’s enough of a plot to sustain the attention of more conventionally driven viewers.
(On DVD, August 2010) For a moment, I nearly hated this film. Keep in mind that it’s a pure product of the French new Wave, which set out to challenge viewers’ expectations about the nature of films. Here, writer/director Jean-Luc Godard takes the usual SF/thriller formula (ie; a secret agent sent to a foreign city to rescue/kill a scientist) and subverts every single facet of it. Shot in black-and-white, the film makes references to SF plot points but blandly takes place in undisguised Paris, featuring sixties technology and clothing. The pacing is glacial, the dialogues don’t quite make sense, the fight sequences are handled in a curiously lackadaisical fashion: clearly, it dares viewers to question themselves about what they’re expecting of a film –a process that remains as effective today than in 1965. It quickly becomes obvious that Alphaville is as much a satire of lazy SF movies than an attempt to say something in a new way. It’s not always enjoyable: I may have thrown my hands up in exasperation twenty minutes into the film, but the wonder of such experiments is that there’s always a reason to keep watching… just to see what else is in store. Amazingly, Alphaville eventually clicks, not just as a screw-you to complacent audiences, but also as a modest piece of thematically deep SF filmmaking: Random flashes of equations, inverted nodding gestures ( “No” meaning “Yes” and vice-versa), disconnected bits of dialogue and heavy-handed dystopian clichés all pile up and fuse into a statement about humanity in the face of technological authoritarianism that works in part because it’s not presented like a genre film. Other small pleasures abound, from some unusual camera work to Eddie Constantine’s wonderfully deadpan performance as the sort-of hero of the film, to a few eerie sequences that show how good SF doesn’t need special effects. But Alphaville’s foremost quality is the very thing that makes it so unapproachable at times: The sense that a gifted filmmaker took a look at a genre and set out to mock it, while still using its techniques to examine his own artistic preoccupations.