Sunday, November 20, 2011

Classic Throwback: Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

I think I might have met my match with Godard. Though there were some great sequences littered throughout, above all, I found Alphaville to be disengaging. It bored me. I wish I didn’t feel this way but I honestly could not get into the film. Even for Godard, it is unconventional. I thought it raised some great ideas and delved into some interesting themes, especially in regards to the power of language and humanity’s entitlement to free thought and emotion. It’s shot in an innovative way (as usual) by Raoul Coutard and incorporates elements of past eras of film noir, but it has a jumbled, meandering and confusing plot, and is forgettable. There is no doubt it is influential (George Orwell and Nineteen Eighty Four and Blade Runner came to mind) but my interest in the story was just never there. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking this, and some of the blame must be placed on myself – I was tired when I started watching it and I had to pause it for a while and go to work.

It’s a very strange film, and slow. I really have no idea what to say about it. Part of me wants to move on to Pierrot Le Fou but because Godard is my personal DOTM I feel compelled to write something about my experience. It is completely different to Godard’s earlier works, which is certainly commendable, but on a personal enjoyment level, it is a diversion I failed to embrace with enthusiasm. Godard, bizarrely, won the Golden Bear for Alphaville. It really is unlike any science fiction film I have ever seen – choosing not to include special effects, futuristic gadgets and otherworldly elements – but utilizing the night streets of Paris, dark corridors and foyers and drab hotel rooms as key settings for the events of this dystopian thriller.

In an unspeculated future (and I’m sure this is meant to be a future for 1965, but not now), secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) cruises into Alphaville in his Ford Galaxie. The idea that Alphaville may in fact be a planet is raised a number of times, but I wasn’t sure. Caution discusses having arrived from ‘The Outlands’ – which I took to be the equivalent of civilized suburbs surrounding Alphaville. Posing as a journalist named Ivan Johnson, and claiming to work for the Figaro-Pravda (a newspaper), Caution’s missions are to search for a missing agent, Henry Dixon (Akim Tamiroff), who he fears may have become a native, and capture or kill the creator of Alphaville, Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon).

He makes a series of stops and visits in the early going - checking in to his hotel, locating Dixon, and finding his way into Von Braun's close circle. He pulls out his camera whenever he can and documents what he witnesses. Alphaville is controlled by a dictatorial computer called Alpha 60, created by Von Braun, which speaks in a croaking, menacing tone, acts as a narrator and communicates with Caution on occasions. Free thought and concepts like love and emotion have been outlawed in the city. People who show any signs of honest emotion (crying at the loss of loved ones or even smiling) are considered criminals and are gathered up and executed - visually represented in an eerie sequence of ceremonial execution in a swimming pool. 

Caution exists as homage to the film noir detective. With a weathered, no-nonsense attitude, Constantine wears a trench coat and a fedora and carries a pistol he isn’t afraid to use. Essentially, he represents a past era and is pitted against a world controlled by a computer (a technological dictatorship) that has eliminated any semblance of humanity in its citizens. This is a theme that is eerily relevant today, with the influence media has on our lives.

He teams up with Natacha (Anna Karina), a love interest (and a potential femme fatale), and the daughter of Von Braun. As one of the alienated mindless drones living in Alphaville, she believes she was born there. She declares she doesn’t know the meaning of the words ‘love’ and ‘conscience’ but unknowingly rebels against the laws (people should not ask ‘why’, but only say ‘because’) at times, which makes her unpredictable. Through Caution she learns that she was in fact born in 'The Outlands' and brought to Alphaville - and when he falls in love with her, and converses at length with her in a hotel room, she is awakened from her brainwashed state and expresses desire to flee the city with him. 

Godard manages to give the film an otherworldly feel simply by setting a lot of the film at night. Most of the events transpire over the course of a single night. Von Braun’s portrait is found on walls all over the city, and each hotel room contains a ‘bible’, which is later revealed to be a regularly updated dictionary of the city's acceptable words. The mournful score that accompanies just about every scene distinguishes early that this is to be a very different outing from Godard. Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, this is the first Godard that I have found a struggle to finish - and though it is evidently influential, and a metaphoric rebellion against modernist constructions and inventions - it is a film I am unlikely to revisit anytime soon.


  1. I've found Alphaville one of Godard's hardest to get into, as well. I have a sneaking suspicion that some people who praise it (not all; I'm sure some really do "get it" in a way I don't yet) do so because it's cool that Godard did sci-fi, and they think it makes them cool to like it. But I've only seen it once, and I think it will improve on rewatch. I very much liked Karina's monologue about the meaning of 'love' and the Orpheus-inspired blowing through the hallways, but beyond that, it's much harder to relate to even than most of Godard's films.

  2. I had that suspicion too. While I admired some things about it (the past era vs. modernity, a theme popping up again) - and some reading I did about the film made it clearer for me - I still can't get past the fact that I did not enjoy it. It is an odd film that I am sure will improve with another viewing. It is just so dense. Nothing is made easy for the audience, and events unfold without any real explanation. Strict attention (and this is required despite growing weariness) will pick up on explanation later - but the way the film is made, it is difficult. Oh well, I'm glad I saw it, and not the only one who struggled - but I was happy to move on to Pierrot Le Fou.