[Photo: Film Forum / Rialto Pictures]
Note: This essay was originally presented at the 2018 Robert Classic French Film Festival on Mar. 16, 2018. It has been slightly revised for this post.
Alphaville is one of those films that seems to slip through the cracks of the cinematic canon, even though 1) it was directed by Jean-Luc Godard, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the 20th century; and 2) it is a prototypical, faintly radical entry in a now-ubiquitous subgenre, the dystopian science-fiction film. Indeed, this writer only stumbled upon the feature three or four years ago – a tardiness that was, in all honesty, due to ambivalence towards the French director’s filmography. Alphaville is, admittedly, not an “easy” film; it’s morbid, peculiar, and very French. However, once the viewer attunes themselves to the feature’s off-kilter, distinctly Godardian approach to world-building, it’s apparent that Alphaville is something special, a film that feels both uncannily familiar and totally unique.
If one were trying to describe Alphaville to the uninitiated, the obvious nickel summary would be “artsy French science-fiction detective film”. However, while such a description would be technically correct, it is also shamefully reductive. Alphaville is a disorienting place where nuanced characterization and straightforward narrative take a back seat to images, ideas, and mood. In this world, instantly recognizable genre tropes act as signposts to guide the audience. Accordingly, the film’s anti-hero – the Virgil, if you will, for this conceptually and artistically bewildering journey – is an immediately familiar archetype. He is Lemmy Caution, a surly secret agent whose iconic attributes could be sketched on a matchbook: a chain-smoking, tough-as-nails bastard in a trench coat and fedora who keeps his trusty .45 semi-automatic close at hand.
Caution remains a relatively obscure figure in the U.S., but this British-created, American detective character was a fixture in French B-pictures of the 1950s and 60s. Most of these now-forgotten features are film noir tales of broads, booze, and bullets, with titles like This Man Is Dangerous (1953) and Dames Get Along (1954). In that series of films, Caution was portrayed by American actor Eddie Constantine. And here is where Godard sticks a finger in the eye of European filmgoers, by casting the same actor as the same character in a completely different kind of film: a grim story set in an autocratic, automated mega-city of the future. The effect is a bit like plopping James Bond down into Republic of Gilead: an audacious, disorienting, and morbidly fascinating experiment in genre subversion.
To be sure, many of the elements one expects in a pulp literature or classical Hollywood detective story are present and accounted for. There is a gorgeous woman in danger, of course, and a seemingly endless succession of pug-ugly goons who alternately shadow, chase, and rough up the hero. Most of the film takes place at night, but no one in this humming, tungsten-bright city ever seems to sleep. Godard fuses these well-worn mystery fiction components to dystopian futurist elements that would have been much less familiar to a filmgoer in 1965 than they are today. This is Philip Marlowe as seen through the lens of 1984 and Brave New World, with a touch of A Clockwork Orange for good measure. The titular Alphaville is a technocratic city-state under the control of a sinister, dictatorial artificial intelligence, Alpha 60. Science and reason are revered above all other values, while sex and drugs are used to mollify the populace. The dictionaries are constantly being re-written and replaced as words are deemed forbidden by the authorities. Criminals are put to death in surreal public executions, for the unforgiveable crime of expressing emotions.
The dissonance created by this amalgamation of film noir and science fiction is both befuddling and enticing. However, Godard can’t resist scrambling it even further with his personal brand of curious cinematic radicalism. Voiceover from the omniscient Alpha 60 computer often steps on Lemmy’s hard-boiled inner monologue, the AI’s distorted croak commenting menacingly and cryptically on the action. Glowing neon letters and numbers – including Einstein’s formula – appear in insert shots, and Godard plays coy visual games with still photographic images and simple, jarring visual effects. Characters address the camera directly, giving voice to their secret fears or reciting forbidden love poetry. Eventually, in fine Godardian fashion, narrative logic itself appears to break down. Lemmy seems to be going in circles, returning to the same hotel room, accosted by the same thugs, running into the same girl, and interrogated repeatedly by the city’s scientist-engineers and the glowing eye of Alpha 60.
Truth be told, it’s clear why Alphaville is not typically discussed alongside the cinematic landmarks of the French New Wave. Coming from a director who made ground-breaking features like Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963), Alphaville doubtlessly looks like genre slumming to some cinephiles. Moreover, the film has a palpable tone of dazed exhaustion that doesn’t quite square with Godard’s reputation for youthful artistic verve. On the other hand, Alphaville is perhaps too austere and elliptical to ensnare the attention of some sci-fi aficionados, who expect more radical design, more imaginative futurism, and more overt mind-screwing in their cerebral techno-dystopian stories.
Such dismissiveness is wholly misplaced, however. The marvel of Alphaville is that the film’s three primary components – the detective story, the dystopian setting, and the New Wave cinematic style – combine, almost alchemically, into something bracingly original. For fans of film noir, Alphaville offers brutal violence, beautiful women, and an amoral lone-wolf hero. For devotees of dystopian science-fiction, it boasts a malevolent computer overlord, Statsi-style thought control, and evocative, absurdist touches. (Like the bizarre reversal of the “Yes” nod and the “No” head-shake in the gestural lexicon of the future.) And for lovers of the New Wave, it’s all assembled with just enough artistic nerve and confounding formal eccentricity to distinguish it from a more straightforward genre hybrid.
In short, there’s something for every viewer to love, but also something to hate, which makes the underlying balancing act a tricky one. It’s a lasting testament to Godard’s instincts as a filmmaker that he manages, in his usual inimitable way, to pull off this feat with such offhanded nonchalance. He whips this peculiar mélange of cinematic influences and invention into a work that is so stimulating, so darkly stylish, that it draws the viewer in like an irresistible magnetic force.
Further Viewing: Fahrenheit 451 (1966); Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970); THX 1138 (1971); World on a Wire (1973); Brazil (1985); "A Detective Story" in The Animatrix (2003).
The Criterion Collection’s DVD of Alphaville is currently out-of-print. However, the film can be rented right now on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other digital platforms.