It is a daunting task to write anything about the consistently innovative and compulsively prolific auteur Jean-Luc Godard. His early films were determined to bend and shatter cinematic conventions,and the oftentimes cryptic Alphaville (1965) is no exception. I don't claim to be able to fully decipher the film, or any Godard picture for that matter, but I’ll begin to peel back the outermost layers of this dense and multifaceted work.
Silence. Logic. Security. Prudence.
Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is Secret Agent 003, sent from the Outlands to Alphaville, the capital of the Galaxy, to apprehend its designer Professor Vonbraun (Howard Vernon) and track down missing Agent Henri Dickson. Posing as a journalist he works his way through labyrinthine corridors and systematized networks of officials to undermine Vonbraun's control and destroy Alphaville itself. Along the way he falls in love with Vonbraun’s purported daughter Natasha (Anna Karina), and opts to save her from the system. Alphaville represents a society where, to paraphrase Natasha, no one has lived in the past or the future. Its inhabitants are caught in an infinite loop that simply ensures a controlled and sustainable society. In Orwellian fashion, the technocratic dictatorship has systematically stripped its people of individualist concepts such as love, conscience, emotion and poetry. Everyone keeps a “Bible,” a periodically edited dictionary of permissible words, and the catalog shrinks on a daily basis.
On the surface Alphaville is an exercise in genre. Godard crafts this story for the screen by synergizing the science fiction and crime-noir genres, calling attention to each by hyperbolizing the essential ingredients of their respective recipes. Within the first ten minutes Godard throws at us the typical elements of crime pulp in rapid procession. The objectification of women, brutality and barbarism, confrontation and gunplay are all displayed within the same electric scene through a single take. Often labeled as the Godard film for those who don’t like Godard, Alphaville is undeniably fun. It constantly engages the viscera, whether or not we’re out to penetrate the profound.
An uncanny, throaty voice gurgles from every wall and ceiling. A sentient cluster of supercomputers that go by the name of Alpha60 governs over Alphaville as judge, jury, and executioner. To Caution and the viewer it represents the inhumane and militantly logical, but to most of Alphaville’s citizens Alpha60 is unquestionably just and in its heuristic calculations utterly infallible. Alpha60 interrogates Caution during a mandatory examination at Resident Control. A pulsating, incandescent bulb that fills the frame in a close-up is the cinematic ancestor of the iconic HAL 9000 camera-eye -- cold, calculating and unwaveringly logical. (It is duly noted that before Alpha60 there was Big Brother.) When Alpha60 asks Caution what illuminates the night he responds, “la poésie.” Caution replies to administered questions that anticipate laconic responses and “yes,” or “no,” answers with emotively-driven poetic expressions. He manages to puzzle Alpha60, and we are suddenly confronted with a clash between human language and computer language, light and electricity, human intuition and logical calculations.
The female inhabitants of Alphaville have it the worst. A striking young blonde in a loose coat shows Lemmy to his room. Along the way she caters to his every need and offers to join him in the bath. As she strips down to her undergarments we see a serial number tattooed across her shoulder. In Alphaville women have been programmed into domicile objects at the service of men, deprived of individualism and free thought. Godard develops this point to such an absurd degree that later a pack of scientists indifferently stroll past a nude woman displayed in a glass case. It is pure objectification.
Godard sets Alphaville in the late-twentieth century. Lemmy Caution says he’s a Guadalcanal Veteran, which references the naval battle in 1947. Much of the film (primarily due to budgetary reasons I’m sure) was shot on-location in mid-1960s Paris, and the filmmakers do little to conceal it. These decisions are clearly deliberate and intended to suggest that Alphaville’s dystopian future is happening in the present, at least in essence. What it lends visually is unique and unprecedented when you consider for example that Caution’s "space vessel" is a white Ford Mustang. We’ll get back to set design in a bit.
Brilliantly lensed by Raoul Cotard (Godard’s long-time cinematographer), the use of black-and-white stock in the style of noir informs the viewer’s experience of the film in several ways. The bleak, monochromatic image here reflects the constraint and rigidity of computer language, a binary world comprised of ones and zeroes. I felt at once the sensation of being crammed inside a chassis of humming circuitry; an affect derived also from confining, frame-within-a-frame compositions and tenebrous, low-key lighting.
It is when the Alpha system begins to self-destruct that we become most aware of the film’s claustrophobic frame. Without Alpha60 its citizens lose all sense of cognizance and social construction, tumbling through corridors and pressing up against walls as if attempting to pass through them. Caution drags Natasha out of the crumbling construct and tells her to think of the word love, otherwise she’s as “lost as the dead of Alphaville.” They head for the Outlands on an intersidereal highway, surrounded by the vastness of space, and the film builds to a satisfying close on the stunning Anna Karina as she learns to say for herself: “I love you.” Good stuff, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
“Ah! The day breaks.”
Flickering cathode tubes above illuminate a clinical corridor. The architectural style of “super modernity” emerges as Alphaville’s visual grammar: the transitional space of instructions, notices, and signs. Godard summons the work of French anthropologist Marc Augé to inform his vision of a bleak and empty existence: a space that is neither relational nor historical, and without any sense of identity is described as an empty zone, or non-place. Corridors, elevators, and lobbies comprise the bulk of Alphaville’s filmed locations, suggesting that the city consists entirely of such non-places. Slaves to logic, the inhabitants of Alphaville have relinquished their culture and ancestry, down to the architecture that surrounds them.
The systematic breakdown of signifier and significance pervades the diegesis and the film’s construction itself. We are frequently faced with graphic close-ups of arrows, always pointing rightward. They are the arrows of direction and momentum, a reflection maybe of a consistent narrative current persistently moving forward. Sometimes we cut to equations and certainties of the physical universe, such as a neon sign flickering E=mc2. Several returns to these signifiers incite the deterioration of associative meaning. If this is indeed the case the reasoning is clear. We are as much a part of the world of Alphaville as its deluded citizens.
All these layers of meaning and modes of expression Godard masterfully weaves into a definitive vision of a crumbling dystopian empire. For a first time viewer the result may be jarring, but stay with it. It pays off plenty in the end.
Alphaville (1965). Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, and Howard Vernon. 99 minutes. Available on Criterion Collection DVD, presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.