Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution

 (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Italy, 1965) 99 minutes


Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Producer: André Michelin
Screenplay: Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematography: Raoul Coutard
Editor: Agnès Guillemot
Music: Paul Misraki
Eddie Constantine (Lemmy Caution)
Anna Karina (Natacha)
Akim Tamiroff (Henri Dickson)
Howard Vernon (The Professor)
László Szabó (The Engineer)
Jean-Pierre Léaud (Breakfast Waiter)

Reviews and notes

1965 Berlin, Spoleto, Rio de Janeiro
2013 New York, Florida

Even when working with genre conventions in his early films Jean-Luc Godard had no interest in making conventional movies, and Alphaville, Godard's sole venture into science fiction is no exception... Pulp-fiction secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a character originally created by British writer Peter Cheyney and which Constantine had already played in many films, travels to the dystopian, technocratic world of Alphaville... He poses as a journalist from the Outlands with a secret mission to neutralise the mastermind of Alphaville, Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon), and destroy Alpha 60, the super-computer that controls the city and its people, imposing its logical orientation on all aspects of social organisation. Individualism has been all but eliminated in the logical world of Alphaville. Thus in Alphaville emotion is forbidden, and anyone who reveals emotional behaviour, such as weeping, is arrested and executed in public spectacles... Despite the film's futuristic setting, Godard uses no special effects and no sets, but only actual locations in Paris, the city's modern (at the time) glass and concrete architecture convincingly signifying its dystopian vision. The seemingly endless corridors of office buildings through which Raoul Coutard's camera tracks indicates just how impersonal the world had already become.
- Keith Grant, Sight and Sound.

Within the framework of a science fiction jape, Jean-Luc Godard admonishes us to keep on thinking for ourselves and be awake to the dangers that lurk in the age of labour-saving and brain-saving. The inhabitants of his future-city Alphaville are ruled by a croaky-voiced computer, which harps on logic and eradicates conscience. 'We know nothing. We draw inferences', says one of these 'slaves of probability'. Dupes the lot of them, for whoever feeds the computer. Or have things come to such a pass in Alphaville that the computer is dominating even its inventor, a certain professor whose withdrawn and sinister face is ambiguous? The city is very sinister, too, and Godard's neatest trick is to eschew the futuristic mock-ups of a Things to Come and use real locations around Paris in such a way that they become impersonal and nightmarish. In a city mantled by night or fog, buildings are angular and glassy and corridors are claustrophobic.

In certain details, Alphaville is an extension of ideas that Godard was developing more soberly and less effectively in Le nouveau monde, his twenty-minute contribution to Rogopag. There he presented a city dehumanised by the after-effects of a nuclear explosion. Everybody behaved very rumly, except one man who stood apart from the rest and questioned their unmotivated actions. A woman of the new world carried a dagger with her into a swimming pool, which notion is elaborated in the Alphaville "pisCINE", where men who are said to have behaved illogically are shot down on the diving boards and a whole clutch of girls with daggers go into the pool and set upon the floating bodies. Observers applaud politely, taking their official spectator-sport cool, because all of them are tranquillised regularly, and sexually appeased as well by shapely but impersonal servants of the computer.

While the professor's ice-daughter laces her morning coffee with regulation pills, however, Lemmy Caution adds to his a modicum of whisky, for he is the stander-apart, a secret agent who has been sent from the outer countries to catch or kill the ambiguous professor. Caution is played by Eddie Constantine, who has been identified with this character in films of lighter intent, and he manages here, despite the incessant perils, to teach the professor's daughter (Anna Karina) the meaning of 'love' a word that has been abolished from the Alphaville dictionary. The thaw is pleasant.

Caution has made contact with a previous outer-agent Henri Dickson (Akira Tamiroff) who has forgotten the meaning of 'Why?' and has been relegated to a sleazy hotel where he is asked to commit suicide as quickly as possible so that his room can be made available to somebody else. Far gone, he sits on the rather conventionally realistic stairway of this dump and tells Caution that the computer has eliminated both Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon. Such disruptive notes are continually struck, provoking levity in the audience. 'What if the outer countries had sent Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and Parker?' I found myself wondering. 'What then?'

Yet the intrusion of pop-pulp is not inappropriate being part and parcel of the scientific era. It is an aid to perspective and equilibrium, in one sense, and at the same time it provides the disquietening jolts that Godard likes using to shake up comfy concepts of cinema and of life. His aversion to brain-washing is known to us, especially in the menace of posters and of printed words, which he splits into fragments to suggest the jagged impressions we get in real life. Mental resistance can become second nature, and encouraging words can be isolated from other words: riVIEra, for example, in Pierrot le fou, a piece of sub-Godard to my mind which, nevertheless, contained that usefully definitive sequence at a party where everybody spoke in the terminology of advertisements, dutifully extolling the virtues of automobiles or deodorants, until Jean-Paul Belmondo, on Godard's behalf, threw handfuls of squelchy cake at them. It is the automatic acceptance that Godard deplores, the gullible femme mariee who measures her bust to see if it conforms to a magazine's concept of the ideal. And it is just this incipient danger that he is on about in Alphaville, where even the strong-minded Lemmy Caution is inquisitive enough to obey the sign on a slot-machine that tells him to put in a coin, but gives no reason. What he gets out of the machine is a printed slip that says 'Merci'.

Films have been making similar points for years, of course. The threats of machines and automation and technology have been underlined or implied in works as different as Modern Times, Mon Oncle and Il deserto rosso. But those films, and this one, go beyond the indictment of labour-saving benefits, which are undoubtedly capable of being truly beneficial, and speak in essence to humans who are understandably willing to relax their teeming minds but who run the risk of unguarded vulnerability. Just for the moment, of course, the menace is limited by repeated demonstrations of the fact that machines are every bit as apt to break down as human beings are.

Sharp and jolting, funny and horrific, Alphaville moves to its climax with inserted negative shots and a skidding about-turn of three cars in the snow, jesting with the traditional cinema chase in the same way that the climax of Bande a Part jested with the old-fashioned gangster films. They in turn have been parodied here in a snappy phone-booth sequence. Godard, in fact, continues to shatter the routines of cinema and of life while maintaining his evident affection for both. Lemmy Caution falls for the professor's daughter because her 'pointed little teeth' remind him of 'the old vampire films'.

Few directors are more demanding than Godard is, in spite of his irreverent gags; and if at times I have wondered whether the steady study of everything he does is really worth the effort it often involves, I can be pretty sure that in the midst of a yawn I will be alerted again by his fruitful bag of tricks. Watching Alphaville, I was on the alert the whole time. It might not be his very best film, but it is high up among his better ones.
- Gordon Gow, Films and Filming, May 1966.

Restoration by Studiocanal

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