Blinding neon signs. A flashing spotlight. Cars whizzing by, rendered as a series of whooshes and blurs. The ominous beep-beep-beep of electronic displays. Jean-Luc Godard built his “Alphaville” out of these snatches and signifiers of then-contemporary life, aside many others like them. The picture, shot in 1965, reappropriates the then-present now-past as an undefined future. In Godard’s eye, innovative technology becomes ominous. Computers become overlords. Love becomes outlawed. The era of technology becomes – instead of a promised advance – an inevitability best avoided for as long as possible.
Eddie Constantine stars here, as private eye Lemmy Caution. Though the character existed already in novels and films, Godard imagines him anew, as a Euro-Bogart lost in a landscape as menacing as any 40s-era shadow-shrouded U.S. city street. Alphaville, like most good detective stories, sees Caution going deep down the rabbit hole, working from a number of maybe-connected leads. He needs to find a missing agent, needs to encounter the head of the titular town, and needs to investigate the computer-overlord that commands it. (The “computer,” in Godardian fashion, also drones philosophical musings over the film’s audio track.)
Caution runs into a number of shady characters during his journey, which also goes a long way toward fulfilling the genre’s standards. Fatale-iest of them all is a double-crossing Alphaville native, played with stark blankness by filmmaker-muse Anna Karina, who leads Caution to his doom while, as cinema often dictates, simultaneously falling in love with him. All this adds up to Godard exorcising his noir demon, this time through the lens of sci-fi. One might even say Alphaville is part of a spiritual trilogy, along with Breathless and Made In USA – the trio sharing an early-Godard-doing-riffs-on-the-American-gangster-pictures-he-loved feeling.
So the d-word often attached to Godard’s work, erroneously or not – “digressive” – doesn’t fit here. When Caution gets into a confrontation with an enemy, and he gets into quite a few, it’s normally resolved within just a few camera setups, even. These fights show us a different Godard than we’re used to studying. They’re indicative of his “cinema phase,” the early years, I suppose – but even compared to most early works, they’re startlingly direct by his standards. There are scenes here that are downright economical. Here’s an action scene: Bad guys appears, film cuts to gun, then cuts to a wound, then cuts to a dead body. Or in another, more comical case, another bad guy approaches, we cut to Caution holding him in a full-nelson, we cut to the guys head on the ground, we cut to Caution behind the driver’s seat of a car driving over said head. The editing, the arrhythmic construction, the compositions; it’s all done-to-the-bone, as to-the-point as a sentence in a Hammett novel.
Alphaville is almost 50 years old now. It’s hard to focus completely on the formalist aspects, frankly, when you’re distracted by how damn prescient the whole vision is, or was, or has become. Scarred by the wars he’d lived through, Godard’s image of the next era is of a society where capitalism and technology band together to banish individualist thought and sincere emotion. Where advanced weapons of destruction are created, using the latest cutting-edge equipment, to reign down death upon ‘less advanced’ enemies. Where algorithms rule culture and science and research and man sits by and accepts their findings. It’s hardly a snapshot of contemporary life, but it’s hardly without parallels too.
Rumor has it Godard originally wanted to title this picture Tarzan vs. IBM. Now the movie’s being rereleased back into the world, after that fight was fought, now that IBM has capably won, so to speak. Emotion may not be outlawed, but the computers certainly conquered contemporary life, they have made wars more destructive, they have fused themselves to our thought process, they have obtained command of many aspects of the decision-making process from the human mind. That makes Lemmy and Godard’s plight all the more tragic, their dark-in-palette projections all the more haunting, their re-wired entry in a already-pitiless genre all the more hopeless.
It’s an irrevocably bleak hallucination, this film, and one of a future that has in some ways already arrived. Raoul Coutard’s photography, even, looks like the flip side of the all-sleek-all-white-everything Apple-look that’s currently in vogue; inky blacks flattening out each frame; from the night skies, from Karina’s coat, from a shadow cast by menacingly-angled piece of architecture. If an iPod commercial had a nightmare, it would look like Alphaville.
Find out where you can find a screening of the film here.