aka: Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution
France (100 mi) 1965 d: Jean-Luc Godard
And because I love you everything moves--
One need only advance to live, to go
Straight forward towards all that you love
I was going towards you
I was moving perpetually into the light
One need only advance to live, to go
Straight forward towards all that you love
I was going towards you
I was moving perpetually into the light
Sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication. But legend embodies it in a form which enables it to spread all over the world.
―Alpha 60 opening the film
Science fiction film noir, creating an eerie atmosphere where form is the content and technology destroys the essence of what is human, the prototype of many stylized films that have followed. Shot in black and white almost entirely at night by Raoul Coutard, the film perfectly encapsulates the subterranean feel, a decade ahead of the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the 70’s in America, complete with sleek, super modern exteriors that reveal an architectural affinity for glass reflections, creating a futuristic, apocalyptic world reminiscent of Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), particularly the low down and dirty aspect, where behind every door is a sinister presence, someone out to take your life, as people are constantly eliminated to eradicate rebellion and disobedience, creating a worker state completely beholden to a super authority, which is little more than a massive computer, like the HAL 9000 computer in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In this advanced technological universe, a perfectly programmed robot is the ideal life form, as it flawlessly obeys what it’s programmed to do. It’s incapable of thinking for itself, as it’s not human and doesn’t have a human conscience, which can establish the difference between what’s wrong and what’s right. The limitations of technology are obvious, as the body count of those put to death for authoritative disobedience continually rises in a futile search for perfection, or allegiance, like an ethnic cleansing, with absolutely no remorse shown afterwards, but we don’t live in a completely rational world, nor would we choose to, yet that’s the ideal portrayed by the authoritative state that assumes power through absolute control, eliminating anything that disagrees. It’s an absurd portrait of a false utopia, where nearly everything that matters is forbidden, and anyone showing signs of emotion or memory are viewed as damaged goods that must be eliminated. Using no constructed sets or special effects, Godard creates a futuristic world in the cold manner in which this is filmed, using a gun-toting, trenchcoat-wearing 40’s style gangster prototype in a fedora as the hero, like a creature out of time, yet his mission is similar to that of Martin Sheen in Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), sent into the heart of darkness to eliminate the high command that is deemed too dangerous and unstable to continue in a position of authority, having elevated his status to that of a god, with legions of followers carrying out his every request, subject to death if they refuse. In this case, it’s a mad scientist on the loose in command of his network of computers that have all but eliminated free will.
At the time Godard associated modernization in France with the government’s conservative push for more absolute control, which President de Gaulle sought with his new constitutional amendment in 1962 consolodating executive power, hoping to ride a wave of popularity, which Godard associated with the robotization of the French people, where commerce and technology were emphasized over human values. Godard’s faith in the values of love, culture, and individual liberty over the dehumanizing effects of the modern world forms the thematic crux of the film, which he viewed as a fight for humanity. Godard was actually proven right, as a year after the film was released the government censored many New Wave films, including most famously Jacques Rivette’s THE NUN (LA RELIGIEUSE) in March of 1966 before its first public screening, reportedly because of its cynical views of the Catholic Church, allowing an exception to premiere at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival where it was received to great acclaim, yet even a mention of the ban was banned from television reporting, with Godard writing a stinging denunciation of de Gaulle’s minister of culture André Malraux for his cowardice in allowing this to happen, describing the censorship as the “Gestapo of the spirit,” lifting the ban after more than a year in September 1967. This was followed by the ministry of culture (still presided over by Malraux) removing Henri Langlois from the Cinémathèque Française in March of 1968, an icon and cultural fixture in the preservation of film, resulting in the cancellation of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival that year in protest, with filmmakers around the world like Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and Fritz Lang sending telegrams in support, leading to the infamous Parisian riots of ’68, including Godard and Truffaut on the front lines, with French police seen beating students and artists alike. In April 1968, 75 days after Langlois was ousted, he was reinstated as head of the Cinémathèque. By that time Godard had already embarked on a new career of political activism.
Eddie Constantine plays secret agent Lemmy Caution, riding into the heart of Alphaville in his white Ford Mustang that he calls a Ford Galaxy, assuming the name of Ivan Johnson, posing as a journalist in town to cover a convention, continually snapping flash pictures, which seem to startle the locals who do not have a high opinion of journalists, as their existence is counterproductive to the will of the authority to control residents by forbidding free access to information. This is a repressed state interested in programmed mind control, not free thinking, where Lemmy represents an ancient tradition from the “Outlands” that has all but been outlawed in Alphaville. The initial sign of the hotel hospitality is to provide a programmed robotic “seductress” to keep him occupied (Christa Lang, who married American director Sam Fuller a few years later), who caters to his every whim, even providing sleep sedatives, though in typical tough guy, Bogart style, this will never do, as he’s perfectly capable of choosing his own girls, finding her a distraction and throwing her out. But she’s soon replaced by another one, none other than Ana Karina as Natacha von Braun, daughter of Alphaville’s authoritative leader, Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon), the creator of the Alpha 60 supercomputer, the man he’s been assigned to capture or eliminate, almost always seen wearing a lab doctor’s smock and dark glasses, leading a contingency of scientists (otherwise known as Professors Heckell and Jeckell, amusingly played by two Cahiers critics) through a labyrinth of computer rooms and empty corridors, interrogating subjects by the minute, many left dazed and crawling the walls afterwards. Natacha sparks Lemmy’s interest immediately, not just because of her family name, hoping she can lead him to her father, but she exhibits a quality unlike the rest, retaining human habits and characteristics, showing signs of vulnerability, though she’s obviously been trained exactly like the others, finding a strange attraction to Lemmy as well, as he speaks his own mind and demonstrates a stalwart resistance to authority, believing he’s the last of a dying breed, still capable of imparting wisdom, making him someone to pay attention to. Karina stands out as a revelation in this mass of uniformity, as her female charms are on full display, providing warmth in this arctic blast of frigid air, becoming adorable throughout (often shot in extreme close-up), even as she plays a mixed-up and confused “seductress” who’s been programmed to forget, yet still remembers words and phrases that have been outlawed, including the barest outlines of personal memories―in other words she still shows signs of being human. The film drags a bit when she’s not in the picture, allowing Lemmy to get lost in this myriad of drab corporate offices, getting interrogated by the robotic voice of Alpha 60, the lead authority in Alphaville, who wonders what his actual intentions are, believing he’s hiding his true identity and does not conform to their ultimate mission, which of course is an absolute and unhindered totalitarian control where computers run the world.
Like Antonioni’s RED DESERT (1964), the film concerns itself with alienation and the threat of dehumanization in a technological society, using an exaggeration of Paris in the present as a kind of science fiction depiction of the future, but really it’s only Lemmy Caution who is out of time, a product of the past, seemingly immune to the adverse effects of computerization and the accompanying indoctrination that removes all human instincts, as his life includes love and poetry, with constant references to literature, all of which provide a foundation for what is essentially the unanswered existential question, wondering why we exist, a question that’s been asked for centuries. In Alphaville, however, “One should never say why; but only because,” believing there is a logical explanation for everything, creating a mathematically precise universe where everything makes sense, eliminating all irrational thought, effectively becoming a police state, rounding up all dissidents and outlaws who violate the rules, where men are killed at a ratio of fifty to every one woman executed, condemning them to die in an unusual ceremony at a swimming pool, all lined up along the deep end, shooting them in unison by machine-gun fire as they fall into the water, with mermaid-like girls in the pool collecting the remains in an Esther Williams style Hollywood tribute, yet they’re armed with knives to finish off any survivors, while specially invited bored guests politely applaud. Easily as memorable an execution style as any in memory, this grisly ordeal provides graphic evidence of how this society devalues human life, yet only the invited few ever get a chance to see it, headed by Professor von Braun himself (a reference to World War II German rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun), who explains that they are being executed for “behaving illogically” (One man was observed crying after his wife’s death), providing ample reason to rebel against the state. Alphaville is making strides to become a super intelligence, advancing far beyond the norm, but at what cost, with Lemmy Caution resolutely declaring, “I refuse to become what you call normal.” The film opens with a flickering white light turning off and on, with an overdramatic musical theme by Paul Misraki that sets up the suspense, allowing the perfect entrance for Lemmy, lighting his cigarette in the car that allows his face to appear, a recognizable icon in France at the time, already appearing in half a dozen different films as a private detective under the recurring character’s name of Lemmy Caution, a popular role that made him a star, with that weather-beaten look of a gangster, a glass of whiskey in one hand and a cigarette in the other, developing a reputation as a charming womanizer. Here he’s the only one in town who seems to sense any impending danger, finding himself at risk under interrogation, but he coolly and calmly speaks in metaphors, not really answering direct questions, leaving the computer to search for any cryptic meaning.
At the outset, Caution comes across a billboard designed to keep the population in tow, marked by direct imperatives, “ALPHAVILLE: SILENCE. LOGIC. SECURITY. PRUDENCE,” a coercive reminder of what is deemed “correct” behavior within the city. Sometime later he comes across a book that is viewed as subversive, likely banned as well, Capitale de La Douleur (The Capital Of Sorrow, 1926), perhaps the best-known book of poetry by Paul Éluard, one of the founders of the French Surrealist movement launched in the 1920’s, with the title seemingly standing for the gloomy town of Alphaville. Natacha, in particular, finds the book fascinating, as it uses words she can barely recall that have been outlawed, where she no longer understands their meaning, words like tenderness, consciousness, love, and why. Each hotel room is provided with a Bible, which is little more than a dictionary of acceptable words, continually updated, suggesting the embrace of technology results in an alteration of the way of thinking, distorting memories, making individuals forget large portions of their personal identity. Yet when Alpha 60 asks Caution what illuminates the night, he responds, “la poésie (poetry).” Among the more intriguing scenes is a suggestion of lovemaking, never really showing any signs of sexual activity, yet Natacha spends the night, filled with poetic description that she rapturously speaks aloud.
Your voice, your eyes, your hands, your lips. Our silences, our words. Light that goes, light that returns. A single smile between us. In quest of knowledge, I watched the night create day while we seemed unchanged. O beloved of all, beloved of one alone, your mouth silently promised to be happy. Away, away, says hate; closer, closer, says love. A caress leads us from our infancy. Increasingly I see the human form as a lover’s dialogue. The heart has but one mouth. Everything by chance. All words without thought. Sentiments adrift. Men roam the city. A glance, a word. Because I love you. Everything moves. We must advance to live. Aim straight ahead toward those you love. I went toward you, endlessly toward the light. If you smile, it enfolds me all the better. The rays of your arms pierce the mist.
This is accompanied by unique hand and face gestures, blending both faces into the same shot, using a choreography of movement that resembles another film that had yet to be made, Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), released the following year, also including a long monologue spoken by Bibi Andersson, yet both are distinguished by a blending of two distinct personalities merging into one, forging a completely new identity, beautifully realized simply by the way they are photographed. This sequence has a way of intensely connecting Natacha to Lemmy, actually shedding a tear when he is arrested, a startling realization, as she begins to see how she’s transforming back to being human again. This film, however, is not without moments of humor. A young Jean-Pierre Léaud, famous for working with Truffaut, now appears in a Godard film, making an uncredited cameo as the hotel clerk who brings breakfast to Lemmy and Natacha. When asked why he carries a gun, Lemmy responds “I’m too old for discussions―I shoot first.” Yet perhaps the most subtle use of humor occurs in the darkened hallways of the central offices of Alphaville, when suddenly the florescent lights turn on, alighting the entire hallway, when a voice can be heard remarking “Ah, dawn is breaking.” While the plot is silly, and the grand finale never in doubt, much of this film’s charm is simply the look of the film, with Godard accentuating modernity in existing Parisian structures, including a vast industrial network of office buildings, neon signs, shots of electricity towers, dual glass elevators in the hotel, featuring a marble lobby, elegant winding staircases, and buildings shot in total darkness illuminated only by the lit windows, yet creating a shadowy darkness that pervades throughout the film, exhibiting signs of German Expressionism, including dramatic contrasts in neon and total blackness, where Alphaville is perceived as a city of darkness, a gloomy, claustrophobic world, beautifully contrasting darkness and light, even incorporating this into the poetic themes on the elusive nature of love and freedom. Borrowing heavily from Jean Cocteau’s depiction of the darkened underworld in ORPHEUS (1950), including an open acknowledgment in the humanizing power of poetry, Lemmy’s rescue of Natacha from the dark city is reminiscent of Orpheus rescuing Eurydice from the hellish depths below, similarly instructing her not to look back as he liberates her from the dead, bringing her back to the land of the living, recalling the memory of something long forgotten, anticipating the climax of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).