Year: 1965

Production: Pathe-contemporary / Chaumiane-Film Studio

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Howard Vernon, Akim Tamiroff

Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard

100 minutes; B/W

In this archetypal French New Wave film, intergalactic secret agent Lemmy Caution (Constantine) arrives at the planet Alphavalle to deal with Alpha 60, the computer used to impose conformity on the inhabitants. He succeeds, meeting the computer's logic with his own illogic, and at the same time wins the affections of the ruler's daughter (Karina). A typical pulp-sf plot is transformed into an allegory of feeling versus technology, the past versus the present: Alphavalle itself is an undisguised (but selectively seen) Paris of the 1960s; Caution (a tough guy from the 1940s, hero of many novels by UK thriller writer Peter Cheynet [1896-1951]) does not use a spaceship to get there, but simply drives his own Ford car through "intersidereal space" - an ordinary road. Alphaville is filmed in high contrast, deep shadows and glaring light. It is a not always accessible maze of allusions culled from a wide variety of sources: semantic theory, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Hollywood B-movies, comic books and pulp sf. The latter, like the other components of Alphaville, is used by Godard as a means of playfully imaging philosophical debate.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

Godard's fascination with the forms and conventions of popular culture, especially its American manifestations, is well known. Alphaville, originally titled Tarzan versus IBM, is the most glorious example of this obsession. Before embarking on this sf film noir, he tried out some of the ideas in a contribution to the omnibus film RoGoPag (1962). His episode, entitled Le Nouveau Monde, told of a man who becomes an alien in his own city, Paris, after an atomic explosion has changed the psychic structure of all his fellow Parisians. A few years later, he contributed an episode called Anticipation to another omnibus film, Le Plus Vieux Metier du Monde (The Oldest Profession) (1967). This time a man from another planet arrives at Orly airport and is escorted to the local hotel where he finds that prostitution has become extremely specialized: one girl mutely performs the gestures of love only, while another only speaks of love without doing anything. The happy ending occurs when he teaches the "courtly love" girl that the mouth can be used both for speaking and for performing loving: they kiss.

Alphaville is a far more complex work. It was made in the same year as Pierrot le Fou (1965), when Godard was at the height of his commercial success and was both reviled and revered as a major innovative force in French (and world) cinema. The film is classic "first phase" Godard, before he turned his lucid intelligence to more directly political issues. The idiosyncratic mix - popular and high culture, myth, fairy tales and realism, linguistics and philosophy, sex and violence - is as might be expected from a film of this period in his career. The plot interwines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with the Oedipus legend. Lemmy Caution (Constantine) is the intergalactic agent who arrives in Alphaville in search for Dr von Braun (Vernon), the evil genius who left the Outer Countries and is now in charge of the central computer Alpha 60. Karina plays von Braun's daughter, Natasha, an employee at the Institute of General Semantics, assigned to Caution as his official guide. After witnessing the death of his contact and predecessor, Henry Dickson (Tamiroff) and numerous adventures, Caution eventually confronts the computer and confuses it by providing poetic answers to schematic questions. He kills von Braun, destroys Alpha 60 and drives out of the city accompanied by Natasha who has learned some of the long-forgotten words such as "conscience". He tells her not to look back while she slowly mouthes the phrase "I love you".

The picture's originality is not to be found in the cliched opposition between emotion and science. The conventions of the sf thriller merely provide the framework for a film while mobilizes, enthusiastically, the themes and images of the genre as a sort of magnetic field within which to release a myriad of philosophical and aesthetic ideas while maintaining an overall shape to the thing. Such a freewheeling approach affords the viewer an uncommonly wide and liberating range of pleasures. In this sense, Alphaville, together with Pierrot le Fou, is Godard's most romantically anarchic movie. The intricate gestural and iconic rhythms as men in trenchcoats and hats move through shadowy or harshly lit spaces, enacting stock situations of the hard-boiled thriller in appropriately seedy locations, often surrounded by surfaces reflecting bright neon light or naked bulbs; the multilayered mesh of classic mythology, Perrault's tales, comic strips, Hollywood movies and cheap detective stories; Constantine's performance as a parody or an extension of his own roles in previous Lemmy Caution films derived from Peter Cheyney's character (Les Femmes s'en Balancent [1953], Lemmy pour les Dames [1961], Ca Va Barder [1954], Je Suit un Sentimental [1955], and many others) are all hugely enjoyable. Further pleasures can be derived from Godard's parody of Parisian intellectuals (Comolli and Fieschi, two critics of Cahiers du Cinema appears as Jekel and Eckel, two white-coated semanticians) or by tracing the director's gradual move towards a more directly political consideration of the relations between ideology and artistic production, between images and sounds.

Godard's own characteristically polemical comment on the film's plot is that it isn't set in the future at all: Caution is a man from the 1940s suddenly catapulted into the Paris of the 1960s. But perhaps the best approach to the movie is simply to engage with it as a tissue of intellectual and sensual pleasures, a feast for cinephiles.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

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