Film Review: Alphaville
An emotionless future in the Paris of the past.
Alphaville, by Donald Ely (Illustration by Donald Ely / June 25, 2014)
When it was released in 1965, Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, a philosophical science-fiction film noir, combined two previously incompatible genres. But Godard's New Wave approach, with its deliberate lack of costumes or effects, enabled him to create an intricate world that weaves the noir of the past with the dystopia of the future, all from the unchanged landscape of 1965 Paris.
Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a secret agent from the "outerlands," comes to Alphaville, a city inhabited by shadows of humanity. These people have had their emotions heavily repressed by the wiles of Professor Von Braun (a reference to rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun), formerly Leonard Nosferatu (another reference, this time to F.W. Murnau's 1922 masterpiece) of the outer world. The cruel master of Alphaville, played by Howard Vernon, keeps his citizens weak with vices to render them malleable to his "logical" control through the relatively unexplained workings of his computerized society manager, Alpha 60. This godlike computer enacts mass killings of anyone in Alphaville who acts "illogically" by displaying basic emotions or disagreeing with the system.
The emotionless nature of the inhabitants of Alphaville distracts them from the life around them, as they are not concerned with questions that go unanswered, the use of their bodies for sex, or even the loss of their own lives. Most of those who don't acclimate themselves to the invented atmosphere of the city end up committing suicide. It even gets to one of Lemmy's former partners, whose indulgence in the vices of Alphaville leaves him dead of a heart attack.
Caution must circumnavigate the labyrinthine philosophies of Alphaville just long enough to either kidnap or kill Professor Von Braun. He does so by posing as a journalist and taking pictures of everything he finds interesting with an Instamatic camera. While the main story of Lemmy Caution plays out, that of the city itself is told in numerous fast-cut shots interlaid throughout the movie. Background scenes and equations are interspliced throughout the film to acclimate the viewer to this "logical" way of life.
At times Alphaville seems to be little more than a vessel from Godard's philosophical musings. An all-pervading question of the meaning of consciousness is asked throughout the film, often by the conflicted character of Natacha Von Braun (played by Godard's beloved actress and then-wife and collaborator, Anna Karina), whose ties to her evil father and the ways of Alphaville are in conflict with the idea of freedom brought by Lemmy Caution.
The philosophical aspects of Alphaville are presented by Alpha 60, who quotes a bastardization of Jorge Luis Borges' A New Refutation of Time. Borges had attempted to deny a narrative view of time, arguing instead that temporality is a series of instants, which Alpha 60 reworks into a circle of past and present. But the ideas from which the computerized behemoth culls its philosophy are, in many ways, as inexplicable as the control the computer holds over the citizens' wills or the reasons the future looks like Paris in 1965. Godard, like Alpha 60, relies on the fact that people will accept the aesthetic and teachings of Alphaville without a whole lot of skepticism.
Alpha 60 is simultaneously the servant of Von Braun and the arbiter of all cause and effect in Alphaville. In these roles there is, of course, a contradiction, one that is realized at the end of the film and ends up tearing Alpha 60 apart from the inside.
Eddie Constantine appeared as the character of Lemmy Caution in quite a few B movies, based on the novels of Peter Cheyney in the years prior to Alphaville. Caution had always been presented as a blend of secret-agent machismo and noir-detective cleverness. Godard's films are always full of references, but it is striking, even for him, to take this almost stock character and place him in the future. Godard's use of Constantine reveals his love of the "tough-guy" archetype (as seen most notably in Jean Pual Belmondo's role in Breathless), but Alphaville's Caution is in his later years, his tough-guy attributes mollified by the cynicism of noir.
It's easy to see Godard's sci-fi noir as a melding of Metropolis and M. But it also takes all the tropes of the American noir classics, especially the hyper-individual film-noir "hero," whom it sets against the groupthink of Alphaville (the film's working title was Tarzan vs. IBM). Godard picks through the many facets of film noir and only uses those he finds entirely necessary. At the time, reconciling the fantastical genre of science fiction with the hard edge of film noir was no simple task, but Godard handled it so effectively that he inspired legions of followers and, post-Blade Runner, it now seems almost rote.
At the end of the film, the poignant moment that traditionally ends most noir pieces comes not from the hero, but from Natacha. As they drive away from the dystopia in which she grew up, she asks Lemmy for help. When he refuses, she shows that she has banished the harsh logical discipline that has been bred into her. "Je . . . vous . . . aime," she whispers. The love that Alpha 60 declared un-utterable at the outset of the movie has been stated, and Natacha has broken the bonds of Alphaville.