Alphaville (1965) is Jean Luc Godard’s noir-sci-fi mash-up, and it’s pretty darn good. The film seems like a stylistic riff on those genres, with a hunk of surrealism thrown in, and at times it has, I think, its tongue in its cheek, but always just so: the control of tone never wavers. Sort of like Flaubert… Those French!
I don’t quite understand the use of music in French films of the 50s and 60s. I commented on The 400 Blows that I thought its music was intrusive: In this film, the soundtrack is purposely so, but sometimes it borders on romantic schmaltz. But then, there’s that ironic, stylistic mash-up again…
A noir thriller with a main character called Lemmy Caution (Not sure, but I think there was a series of films or books with that character in France at the time…) played by an American expatriot actor whose face looks like it’s seen a lot of action, that ends with the destruction of an entire city. Well, maybe not. “Maybe all the inhabitants will heal and it will become a happy place,” Lemmy tells us as he drives away with his princess who saves herself and ends the movie by speaking the words she never learned, “I love you!“
The story begins with Lemmy, aka Ivan Johnston, a secret agent from the Outer Countries, running around Alphaville in a fedora and raincoat looking for Dr. von Braun. He snaps pictures of everything with a cheap camera, pretending to be a journalist. The film is shot in haute and not so haute moderne architectural sites around Paris. Part of the near-campy weirdness of the film is that it’s supposed to be in the future – not sure how far – and it’s supposed to be on another planet, but everyone talks as if they just got off the subway in NYC. Lemmy drives American cars, of course.
Things happen that don’t make sense, but since it’s a noir, it’s all rather deadpan. A man breaks into Lemmy’s room, and Caution, not being too cautious, shoots him. Later, interrogated by the Alpha 60 computer that runs the city, he says he was nervous and doesn’t take chances. How was he to know it was just a psychological test? Lemmy is pretty quick with a gun at the end, shooting people right and left with aplomb as he decommissions Alpha 60 and sets the city on its ear.
Lemmy is a hard-boiled type. He knows his way around the hi-tech world, but he prefers old technology. I concur – you won’t catch me with a smart phone. He finally catches up with von Braun who tries to bribe him with gold and women, the two things Lemmy told the central computer he cares about. But he was probably fooling – he’s a romantic under his tough exterior. He tells von Braun he’s used to living with the fear of death: “For a humble secret agent like me, it’s a constant companion, like whiskey.” Hard-boiled, indeed!
Of course, women in Alphaville are mostly at the disposal of men, and come in various seductress levels, with numbers tattooed on their necks. Lemmy isn’t tough enough to resist this one (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife), his own femme fatale who reminds me of the one from Zamyatin’s We. Lemmy even says she has “sharp teeth” like the characters in old vampire movies. She’ll betray him, of course.
When Lemmy goes on the rampage against the computer, we aren’t quite sure what he does, but it all begins with him speaking illogically about love. The shot below is a portent of 2001. With Alpha 60 on the blink, the citizens literally start to climb the walls, acting like termites in a nest where the queen has died. Alpha 60, like Hal 9000, speaks, but with a voice that is distorted with a synthesizer.
Typical sights in Alphaville…huh?
The use of sites is very clever. While we hear narration about the ways non-normals are executed, we see a theater with banks of seats that are rotating into a recess in the floor, and learn that a large group was electrocuted while watching a show.
Ivan/Lemmy is a cool customer with a semi-automatic, and he uses it without hesitation. The thugs disarm him, however, by commanding the girl to recite story No. 434, which gets a laugh from Lemmy: then they pummel him into submission. Still, isn’t this film the forerunner of other noir-sci-fi faves, such as Blade Runner? Maybe not – it’s so French. Readings from the surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s Capital of Pain figure prominently in the narrative (every Frenchman with pretensions to cool would have known the text), and there is much abstract talk of love, conscience, humanity, and such existentialist cliches…
Mission accomplished, the girl rescued, Lemmy drives off on the ring road to inter-sidereal space, returning to his own galaxy in the Outer Countries.