DIRECTED BY: Jean-Luc Godard
PLOT: Detective Lemmy Caution sneaks into a soulless, computer-controlled metropolis in search of a fellow agent, and eventually sets about destroying the entire enterprise.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Alphaville is Godard’s angry screed against the inhumanity of the modern world. Appropriately, he adopts a low-tech approach to depict a future world governed by mathematics and free of human passion, and lets the awkward collision of noir and science fiction create a naturally unsettling, thought-provoking landscape.
COMMENTS: There’s a story of how Alphaville came to be that is not strictly necessary to understanding the film, but which does offer an intriguing insight into the mind of its fiercely independent director. FBI agent Lemmy Caution was the creation of a British novelist, and was portrayed in seven French-language films by expatriate actor Eddie Constantine. Audiences came to know Caution as an archetype of the grizzled tough guy who is as apt to use his fists as his wits to solve problems. Godard evidently decided that this character would be the perfect antidote to a universe where a computer has extinguished human emotion, so he created a plot that brought the detective into the future. But knowing the havoc his plan would wreak, Godard enlisted his assistant director to draft a false treatment based on one of the original books, which was presented to the moneymen who eventually bankrolled the picture. Cash in hand, Godard set about making a movie of his own design with the cheeky subtitle une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution), essentially obliterating the character and derailing Constantine’s career.
It’s a clever bit of legerdemain as well as a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. But I tell this story because it offers a useful insight into some of Godard’s unusual choices in Alphaville. Soulless, dystopian futures were hardly without precedent, but as far as Godard is concerned, Paris in 1965 already is just such a dystopia. He carefully avoids the most familiar sights of the City of Lights, using newer buildings and designs to reflect the changing soul of the city. But even without futuristic flourishes or scenic adornment, Alphaville the city is unmistakably Paris, with modern architecture and new devices—Caution’s Instamatic camera and Ford Galaxie were startling new innovations for the time—standing in for the future-as-now. For this reason, Godard isn’t just stealing Lemmy Caution to be his bad boy. He needs the constant of Lemmy Caution to hold on to, because he’s out to show that the modern world has become completely detached from humanity; the detective is essential as a familiar icon of a blood-and-guts world to stand up to the soul-sucking new. And even if you aren’t familiar with the character specifically, Constantine’s recognizable hard-as-nails portrayal marks him as the thing that doesn’t belong in Alphaville. Like Mike Hammer showing up in Brave New World, Lemmy Caution is here to stand out, representing humanity in all its passion and even ugliness. He is discordant just by being.
Part of what makes everything so uncomfortable is how normal it all looks, with just one thing put off-kilter to turn the prism. Caution checks into a nice hotel room and is escorted by a helpful but disengaged employee who immediately takes off her dress in anticipation of being used for sex. Every room has a helpful dictionary, which is regularly replaced with a new volume to reflect the words that have been stricken from the vocabulary at the computer’s direction. Familiar cities still exist in the outside, but their names are slightly off. Leading citizens watch passively as rebels—in full-throated protest against the computerized dictatorship—are executed in a swimming pool, after which bathing beauties haul away the bodies. Perhaps the most distressing disconnect is heroine Natasha, a dark-eyed beauty whose status as the daughter of Alphaville’s creator is curiously irrelevant. When she makes a bold proclamation at the film’s conclusion—“Je t’aime”—it signals a connection with her humanity, but the words are chillingly unpracticed, as she tries them on like a pair of shoes that have yet to be broken in.
The most science fictional element is α60, the computer that runs Alphaville and saps the population of its humanity. Godard could never have envisioned the computer as the placid and murderous HAL 9000 or the charmingly imperious Ultron. Instead, α60 is malevolent, a mob boss with a voice that mangles speech as easily as its master plan mangles souls. The computer speaks bluntly of mankind’s doom, and only Caution seems capable of (or interested in) saying no.
Godard isn’t subtle. The scientist who runs the central computer is named von Braun, a blatant call-out to the German scientist who masterminded America’s moon rocket program. As if that weren’t sufficiently on-the-nose, we learn that von Braun previously went by the name Nosferatu. And when Caution destroys α60 with a few carefully chosen words from Jorge Luis Borges, the effect is so catastrophic that human beings are suddenly unable to walk. Faced with going big or going home, he lays it all on the table.
Because Godard has no time for subtlety. He sees the cataclysm happening in real time. He is demanding that the world rise up against those who would place formulas above poems. Humanity is dying, he says, and Alphaville is his howl at the dying of the light.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It begins as a fast-moving prank that combines the amusing agitations of a character on the order of James Bond and the highly pictorial fascinations of a slick science-fiction mystery, and it makes for some brisk satiric mischief when it is zipping along in this vein. Then, half way through, it swings abruptly into a solemn allegorical account of this suddenly sobered fellow with a weird computer-controlled society, and the whole thing becomes a tedious tussle with intellectual banalities.” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by ubermolch. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)