#30: Alphaville


1965

Director:  Jean-Luc Godard

Cast:  Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (4/7).  Ambitious, artsy, freighted with meaning.  Its reach exceeds its grasp, and it’s definitely a challenging movie to watch, but it does repay the careful and thoughtful viewer.  That said, it’s probably not as clever as it thinks it is.  Unintended (?) silliness and shocking violence give it a bit of humor as well.

Introduction

French director, famed for his participation in new wave cinema in the ’60s, and a devotee of existentialist philosophy.  French language with subtitles.  Dystopian science fiction combined with film noir.  Lead character Lemmy Caution an American secret agent created by a British policeman and beloved by the French.  Black and white.  Rather small budget.

Oh yes, this is one movie that was going to be wierd no matter what.

It definitely delivers on the wierdness front.  It’s also, in some ways—or so it is said—the heir to Metropolis and the forerunner of Brazil and Bladerunner—all films that rank higher on the Top 50 Films List, by the way.  It’s a stylish and highly stylized, extraordinarily ambitious and artistic film.  Most people won’t like it.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into?  I have to try and lay out the plot?  I’m not sure I understood it!

Really, though, it’s not that hard to explain.  Lemmy Caution is a secret agent sent to Alphaville, the capital of a galaxy, with three distinct missions:  find the agent previously sent to Alphaville, find the defector Professor vonBraun, and destroy the computer Alpha 60, so that Alphaville will not pose a threat to the other galaxies.  Along the way he meets vonBraun’s daughter Natacha and falls in love with her.  He’s successful in his efforts, and takes Natacha with him when he leaves.

Now there, that wasn’t so bad, was it?  Trust me, I have conveyed only a basic outline of the plot…the other thing you need to know is that Alpha 60, which was apparently invented by Professor von Braun, is a sentient computer which seeks to eliminate freedom and individuality in favor of efficiency, as well as expansion.  Alphaville is a sterile place void of emotion, and Alpha 60 is the root cause.

Impressions

When we think of science fiction movies, we think of flashy special effects and gorgeous scenery and intriguing conceptual underpinnings.  I’m here to tell you, though, that Alphaville gets by just fine on the last one.  Instead of special effects, Godard uses dialogue and intangibles to convey his meaning.  For example, Lemmy Caution arrives in Alphaville using a car, but it’s crystal clear from the dialogue that he traveled from one galaxy to another, presumably in a space ship of some sort.  The gleaming perfect City of the Future—Alphaville itself—is merely Paris filmed in 1965.

In other words, you’re going to have to use your imagination a bit—and that’s not the only way that Alphaville is going to make you work.

Though black and white, the movie makes extensive use of lighting to create fairly attractive, and at the same time sterile, vistas.  Those vistas are rather ordinary, which does serve the themes of the movie.

The performances are rather good, though the filter of foreign language and subtitle may create some distance between the performances and the viewer.  Eddie Constantine, who plays Lemmy Caution, brings a world-weary, almost depressed and certainly stoic, vibe to his character—all of which make his sudden outbursts of violence surprising and somewhat horrifying.  Anna Karina, who portrays Natacha vonBraun, doesn’t have much of a chance to shine, as virtually everything that Lemmy takes for granted is surprising to her, and the things she takes for granted are puzzling to him.  And yet…her character displays emotion coming through the fog cast by Alpha 60, and does it convincingly.

Thematically, the film is about polar opposites embodied by, on one side, Lemmy Caution, and on the other, by Alpha 60.  Caution is a man who—in spite of being a dashing secret agent from New York—loves poetry, even bringing a book of it with him on his secret mission.  Alpha 60, on the other hand, is a sentient and perhaps telepathic computer without emotion interested only in efficiency and expansion.  Natacha is their battleground, and her awakening to emotion is Caution’s victory and Alpha 60’s destruction.

Godard advances his themes by showing scientific equations, as well as the words “nord” (north) and “sud” (south), on the screen between or even during scenes in some places.  There are nice touches:  residents refer to dictionaries, which have lists of approved words, as bibles.  There is a surreal execution scene which takes place at an indoor swimming pool and has all the accoutrements of a sporting event.  One of the men executed is killed because he cried at his wife’s funeral.

The film takes its minimalist approach to effects and turns it into an art form—though not entirely successfully.  For example, when Caution meets with his fellow agent, that agent hides him behind a cabinet door, but his guest, a seductress third class, would have easily been able to see him seated behind the door—part of his body simply stuck out, and her field of view would have been directly on him.  Godard films the scene as if she can’t see him.  And when she and the first agent have sex, they remain fully clothed.  His resulting heart attack doesn’t make a lot of sense until you realize that it’s not foreplay, but rather sex.

For all that the film reaches for greatness, and does so in an artistic and stylized manner, it is not completely successful.  Over and over again, the surreal mood is jarred or even shattered by common-place occurrences that drag out on the screen.  Every moment does not contribute to the overall thrust of the film—or at least so it seems on the first and second viewings.  And the highly stylized sequences, in which the action on the screen does not mirror the dialogue or meaning, can be difficult to follow.  I have no problem with working to understand things, but some of the events in Alphaville seemed designed to obscure the film’s meanings.

Thematically, we’ve seen a lot of this before, which also undercuts the film’s power.  For example, the deliberate changes to language to control thought were brilliantly played out in the dystopia 1984, and the dictionary-Bible thing here mirrors that.  The supercomputer which controls everything—including the intimations of telepathy—is the key villain in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  In other words, there’s not much here that’s new, though the method of story-telling is very avant-garde.

Some of the stylization struck me as funny, and there are some bizarre events which, in a very dark sort of way, are remarkably humorous.  I have no idea whether it is intentional or not, but Caution’s murderous rampage when he hunts down vonBraun and then escapes from the scene of the crime is shockingly funny.  I couldn’t tell if the action sequence was meant to be serious or not, but it almost made the movie worth it all by itself.

The science in the film is interesting.  Consider a computer system which is given increasingly difficult problems to solve, and through those problems and some self-design and self-programming, achieves sentience.  That’s what Alpha 60 is.  We don’t have anything like that (which might be a good thing), and frankly, we don’t understand our own consciousness on any fundamental level.  So is it possible?  Who knows?  The jury is out on artificial intelligence, whether purposeful or accidental, though it is one of the more enduring science fiction tropes.

Wrap-up

I haven’t said it yet, but I fell asleep on the first viewing.  Apparently my snoring didn’t stop Mark and Chris from watching it, and later I watched it again.

Mark’s reaction, as the most high-brow among us, was telling:  it’s good, for a faggy art film.

Chris, on the other hand, hated the film.

My reaction is that most people will not like this film.  I enjoyed it for what it was—an ambitious, darkly funny and wierdly artistic film.  Sure, the story may be a little silly and a little trite, and Godard’s reach may exceed his grasp, but it was a fun and thoughtful ride.

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2 Responses to “#30: Alphaville”

  1. Mark from the Wretched Excess Crew here. I never really considered myself all that high-brow, but… I really did like Alphaville, which I guess means that I qualify.

    Anyway, about the film: Goddard was parodying the detective/spy genre, so I think all the funny stuff is definitely intentional, up to and including Lemmy’s ludicrous hiding place in the sex scene. The ease with which he mows down all of Alpha 60s agents is also supposed to be funny, I think, though there is some business about Alpha 60 getting caught in its own logic in regards to Lemmy. Its line “It is illogical to stop the superior man” kind of implies that it’s letting Lemmy win as part of its on-going omniscient social experiment. I’d have to watch it again to see if I think that’s really what’s happening, but it did occur to me while watching the first time.

    As for whether Goddard’s reach exceeded his grasp… I dunno. Ultimately, all he was concerned about was love, art, and the individual triumphing over sterile conformity, and I think he pulls that off just fine. Using the detective hero to get that message across is kind of a master stroke, too; those guys are supermen in many ways, so Goddard made his hero into his own version of the superman, one whose inner strength derives from the things Goddard himself held most dear.

    Damn, I guess I am kinda high-brow after all…

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