Saturday, February 13, 2010


Alphaville reminds me of another French film I recently viewed, Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale, in that, while it fails to live up to its director's previous film, it shows him continuing to grow in exciting ways. Like Band of Outsiders, it dabbles in the genre trappings of Breathless in a way that builds upon the strengths of his debut. In fact, its hybrid of science fiction and classic film noir may mark the film as the most influential of Godard's films since his first.

You can see it in Blade Runner, Dark City, The Matrix and another film that attempts to foresee the future through the prism of the past. Godard utilizes few special effects, and the city he, Raoul Coutard and the actors drive around is clearly 1960s Paris, but he demonstrates how dystopic fiction relies most heavily upon atmosphere, and the auteur's penchant for mining Brecht's love of audience alienation finds its best outlet yet in a world that actively disengages its population.

For the titular city of Alphaville is, like the OneState in Yevgeny Zamyatin's We and its clear descendants (1984's Airstrip One and Brave New World's World State), a place of reason and dispassion. Run by a supercomputer titled Alpha 60, Alphaville bans emotional outbursts of any kind, rounding up and executing people for mourning a dead loved one or even smiling for no reason.

Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), an agent from the "Outlands" sent to destroy the computer and the city's human leader, arrives at a hotel at the start posing as a journalist for Figaro-Pravda (a mash-up of the oldest newspaper in France, a right-leaning publication, and the leading paper of the Soviet Union). There, he meets and enlists the help of Alpha 60 programmer Natacha (Anna Karina), also the daughter of Alphaville leader Professor Vonbraum. We see Alphaville's effect through her, as she does not understand the concept of love and accepts the stringent policies of Alphaville; later, she stands in a crowd -- like the members of OneState -- watching a public execution with the sort of mild appraisal befitting a golf tournament.

Caution, with his trenchcoat and a voice-over narration that says more about him than the events on which he comments, comes right out of film noir, albeit with the Godardian twist that he's a well-read intellectual who knows his philosophy and poetry. He's diametrically opposed to a world that hampers free thought -- every building comes with a "Bible" that is actually a dictionary updated daily to remove any words that might evoke emotion or pondering -- not only because of his intellect but because of what he represents. We learn later that Professor Vonbraum was once Leonard Nosferatu, resident of the Outlands, but Caution is told that Nosferatu "no longer exists." When Leonard sold out and helped to lead this restrictive city, he left behind his original name, an homage to that great Expressionist work by F.W. Murnau. Expressionism, almost by definition, would have no place in such a world, which would also rule out noir, the genre it most heavily influenced. Other characters, unseen ones said to have been executed, are also named for pop culture items, such as Dick Tracy and Guy Leclair (the French version of Flash Gordon).

Godard's sense of humor is present throughout, especially in the way that Alpha 60's omnipresence allows it to comment on the action and to hold conversations with Caution. In one scene, Natacha and Caution are made to watch Alpha's propaganda, consisting of slides showing dangerous thoughts and emotion counterbalanced and eliminated by contradictory ideas. For example, it tells citizens to replace the question "Pourquoi?" with "Parceque!" The word "censoré is itself censored.

References positively explode in this film, from those pop-culture-tinged names to its frequent use of poetry. It even calls upon physics, which is fine by me because I can spot those as the poems fly overhead. Planck's Postulate and Einstein's mass-energy equivalence buzz on the screen at times like neon signs advertising seedy wares, and a mention of Nobel-winning nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi floats among the pop culture and high art. Godard's too smart to slam science, but a world in which physical equations replace entertainment, even the bawdy, tasteless kind, cannot be a place of happiness.

Unfortunately, after a blinding start (even the credits jump-cut), Alphaville slllloooooowwwws, like a robot with a dying battery. Only in the final ten minutes, in which Caution destroys Alpha 60, kills all his enemies and gets the girl does it pick up once more. These last moments, however, undo much of the lethargy of the second act: Caution's use of poetry and riddles to destroy Alpha 60 vaguely recalls Orpheus' use of his songs to sway Hades into releasing Eurydice. The effect of Alpha's self-destruction drives the city's denizens mad, like ants without a queen, and Natacha too thrashes about until Caution can snap her out of it. And there's something sweet about its ending, an inverted take on the most beautiful scene in Le Petit Soldat, in which Natacha, at one point nearly made out to be the femme fatale, rides out of the city with Lemmy and remarks, for the first time, says "Je vous aime."


  1. I really like this film. My top picks for Godard in the 60s are A Married Woman, Masculin feminin, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her and this one. It takes Eddie Constantine's long-established Lemmy Caution character — who appeared in a long line of French mystery thrillers and noirs — and transplants him into this forbidding future world. Far from finding it slow or boring, I think it's enthralling. Its rhythms are hypnotic. Godard, who is often accused, ironically, of being overly intellectual, is actually exploring the consequences of draining the emotion out of life in favor of intellect and reason. The film's central theme is rediscovering emotional connections between people: the hero wins by re-teaching the heroine about love. I find the ending, in which Karina struggles to remember the words "I love you," indescribably moving.

    This is a film, and a moment, to keep in mind as you go into Godard's later works. Godard quotes from this film quite a bit in some of his 90s films, for instance. It locates the tension between the state and the individual in love and emotion: the state, not content to control the physical circumstances of life, tries to infiltrate mental life as well. This is a theme that remains dear to Godard for a long time to come. And in 1991, he recast Constantine as Lemmy Caution in Germany Year 90 Nine Zero, which addressed similar themes revolving around the reunification of Germany.

  2. I think its hypnotism was a bit too lulling, though. I certainly liked the picture, and as I said at the start it shows Godard continuing to grow as a filmmaker, to refine old habits and to try new things, and I absolutely loved the ending. But in the middle I kept swaying between being taken in by its calmly oneiric effect and put off by it.

    I am discovering, to the shock and minor horror of the Jake Cole that was six months ago, that I am slowly being consumed by Godard in the best possible way. Having gone through all of these, I've yet to find one I actively dislike, even Les Carabiniers which is easily the weak one of the bunch. I mean, I didn't make Godard an "official" candidate for a retrospective because I thought I would filter in and out of touching upon his work, yet I've become so rapidly enamored with him that I've spent more time on his films than the two I meant to single out combined (and I've got a Pierrot review coming later today). I actually need to slow down a bit so I can start building my Karagara ratio in order to start downloading his '70s work.

    I'm not sure that I'm in love with Godard yet, but I've already accomplished what I hoped to do with going through his work -- to figure out how I process him and his challenging work -- freeing me up to really dive into his corpus and have fun with it.

  3. This does seem to be an especially divisive film for Godard; a lot of people are definitely put off by it, as much by the repetitive computerized drone of Alpha 60 as by the deliberate pacing.

    And I'm really glad you're getting so much out of this Godard viewing spree. I'm really enjoying following along.