Saturday Movie Review: Alphaville

Saturday, September 02, 2006
Posted by Alistair.
From the little I know of the director, it seems that Jean-Luc "Cinema" Godard's films work, when they do, when the director succeeds in precariously balancing American pop-culture with French existential and metaphysical philosophy. In Alphaville, the prolific director's tenth film in five years, Godard errs in both directions: by focusing too heavily on the philosophical and the pop, Godard replaces what could have been a classic film with one that is merely good.

The movie's title comes from its location. Alphaville is the name of a squalid dystopia ruled by a fascist computer, Alpha-60 (brilliantly voiced by a man without a voice box). In Alphaville logic rules everything, words like conscience and love are forbidden, and weeping is a crime punishable by death. The streets and interiors simultaneously capture the grime of the Forties noir and the impersonal, metallic, cold of the late Fifties, early Sixties sci-fi future. Godard deserves much respect for crafting a world that is familiar yet so uniquely alien out of nothing more than Paris in the mid Sixties (the film's exclusive shooting location).

The world of the future is not as bleak as it initially seems. Alphaville isn't the only city left in the galaxy, there exist the "Outer-Lands" populated by such cities as Tokyorama, Nuevo-York, and Florence. Although none of these cities are ever seen it is hinted that they still hold on to the old ways of love, self-expression, and everything else illogical. Out of Nuevo-York comes secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). A brash American detective of the Sam Spade pedigree, Caution is intent on finding and liquidating Professor Leonard Nosferatu (once professor Von Braun) a man who fled the Outer-Lands to create and run Alpha-60 in typical evil scientist fashion. Along the way Caution meets and falls for Von Braun's daughter Natacha (Godard regular and wife, Anna Karina), a woman who has been in Alphaville so long she has forgotten the word love....

Alphaville has every detail down pat. There are abundant pop-culture refferences and in-jokes from the evil professor's name to lab technicians named Heckle and Jeckle (after the cartoon ravens) and a secret agent with the unlikely nomen cloture Dick Tracy. All the actors carry themselves perfectly—Constantine holds himself like a Bogart Proust love child, simultaneously tough and poetically tender, while Karina pulls off seeming confused and seductive in such a way that the traits complement each other, her confusion becoming a seduction and her seduction a confusion. Caution looks like noir itself while running down a hallway with a drawn gun in a beautifully chosen hat and trench coat. Shots like this are cross-cut with shots of neon signs that advertise E=mc², and other physics slogans, as well as endless hallways with futuristic doors, and neon signs denoting the city's north and south zones. Through these details Godard is able to create his unique vision of a world that is equal parts past and future. And since the super-computer Alpha-60 insists that past and future are one and the same, Godard has succeeded in creating a hellish imaginary world in both form and content.

The film's philosophy is equally perfect in its details. With brilliantly enigmatic quotes from the computer such as: "Once we know the number one, we believe that we know the number two, because one plus one equals two. We forget that first we must know the meaning of plus." There are some amazing exchanges between Alpha-60 and Mr. Caution, such as when the computer asks the man what the privilege of the dead is and the man replies "To die no more." Or when the computer tells him, "I shall calculate so that failure is impossible". To which the reply is, "I shall fight so that failure is possible". These lines come in between images of men being shot by machine guns into swimming pools for behaving illogically, ruminations on art and poetry, and the struggle by Natacha to overcome logic with feeling.

And while all of these details are presented in crisp, perfect fashion, the big picture becomes blurred. Godard focuses so heavily on capturing good dialogue, referencing the pop-culture of his youth, and telling us which metaphysics of time he calls his own that he utterly forgets the film's plot. No—perhaps "forgets" isn't the right word—it is more as if the plot is shunned. And while shunning a film's plot (or at the very least severely relegating it) is a brave move and worthy of some respect, it must only be done when it is replaced by something even better. Unfortunately for Godard, his vague theories of time, and laughably naive ideas about the badness of math and logic and goodness of poetry and art, do not do the trick.

This film ends—as do most Sixties movies about evil super-computers that rule the world—with the computer destroyed (it uses all its power trying to decipher a riddle about love [groan]), Alphaville and all its brainwashed denizens dying off, and the two heroes speeding away in a car while Natacha forgets all the logic she learned and begins to feel love. That she has absolutely no reason to love Lemmy Caution is, in the face of everything else going on, hardly noticeable. I was unpleasantly surprised by this film's general naivety and dated ideas regarding the subject of love; a subject I have always found the French New Wave to warmly embrace and understand without sacrificing the emotion's more subtle and complex points. Here love seems both cold and misunderstood. I am not trying to fault this film too heavily. It is, of course, a science fiction film of the 1960's and one of the best and smartest ones at that. It fails, however, to transcend the boundaries of its genre—although it plays with them quite masterfully—and never becomes, as 2001 later would, something more than a science-fiction film made at the height of the froth of Sixties ideology and confusion.


David Thomson said...

Thanks. I took your advice and ordered a used VHS copy of Alphaville from