In 1965, Jean-Luc Godard had already established himself as a major game-changer in the world of cinema by ushering forth the movement—or “quality,” as he likes to call it—known as “New Wave.” A fully matured filmmaker and creative by then, Godard concocted a jolting, absurd, and utterly captivating masterpiece in a film he titled Alphaville.
Alphaville’s production is a study in contrasts, cinematic fabric woven of black and white thread, past and present, love and logic, and man and machine. It is the story of renowned detective Lemmy Caution (Franco-American actor Eddie Constantine) of French B-movie fame, whose solid demeanour, Zippo lighter and ever-present fedora firmly entrenched in film noir. And yet, the world in which Lemmy exists is one of science fiction, a dystopian society with technology and problems much more advanced than that of the ’60s.
Alphaville opens in all its anachronistic glory with the impassive, trench-coat-wearing Caution sitting in his Ford Galaxie, lighting a cigarette. Long, drawn-out shots of blunt, concrete-and-glass buildings and the illuminated movement of an elevated train are cut with disjointed flashing lights and neon signs. Sonically, a philosophical monologue by a disembodied, chill-inducing yet strangely sonorous voice follows the crests and swells of a melodramatic orchestral brass typical of noir scores. It is truly arresting to have sights, and symbols of modernity painted in shades of black and white, swathes of light and dark.
Lemmy enters a well-lit hotel lobby and is immediately assigned a Seductress to help him to his room. As the reticent detective snaps photos of seemingly unimportant scenes—the Seductress, mid-speech; the elevator walls; the wallpapered hallways—his female companion, smile affixed unnaturally on her face, spouts repetitious lines meant to be alluring, but fall flat due to her lack of emotion. “Yes, mister; no, mister; please, mister; alright, mister.” As she offers herself placidly to him, naked in a bathtub, the film’s trademark absurdity makes its first appearance: an armed assailant arrives and engages in a scuffle with Lemmy, who handles the chaos of the situation exceedingly calmly. A cheery tune from the orchestral score accompanies the men’s punches and uppercuts, peppered with the occasional shattering of glass. The incongruity—happy music, violent scene—is wacky and out of the blue, both New Wave qualities that Godard strives for and achieves throughout the film. As Lemmy so eloquently puts it, after he dispatches of the intruder and sees the Seductress has retained her smiley, beguiling charade, “All things weird are normal in this whore of cities.”
We find out that Lemmy is a secret agent posing as Ivan Johnson, a reporter from the newspaper Figaro-Pravda. His origins, the Outlands, are an untamed and enigmatic place—even more so for the emotionally restrained citizens of Alphaville, who have only ever known the ironclad anti-humanity regime imposed by a sentient computer called Alpha 60. Lemmy’s missions are to locate fellow agent and predecessor Henry Dickson, then take down the dictatorial computer and its creator, a Professor von Braun. His ultimate goal: to free the citizens of Alphaville.
Now, the 19th century was certainly not without its share of artistic, dystopian visions, with authors and filmmakers worldwide making doom-and-gloom predictions about government (George Orwell’s 1984), environmental disasters (Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and social complacency (Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451). Godard takes a more technological angle, giving voice to the fears that have been present in people’s minds since the Industrial Revolution: when will the machine overtake the man? In Alphaville, this has already happened. Alpha 60 grows to be beyond the Professor’s control and instigates a brutal authoritarian rule, in which people must conform to the unemotional norm. They must be wiped clean of all traces of individuality and humanity, with simple acts like smiling or crying punishable by public execution. The people are bound by a dictionary, their “bible,” only able to use words contained within its pages—a dwindling number, as each day new words are taken out, deigned unnecessary because they are “too emotional.” To them, there is no why, only because; there is no past or future, only the present. Such is the static nature of Alphaville as maintained by its rational, unfeeling ruler. The computer’s voice makes regular appearances, and Alpha 60’s omnipresence is enhanced by neon signs flashed between scenes, proclaiming formulas such as “E=mc2” and “E=hf” to affirm the city’s apathetic, scientific state.
Along the way, Lemmy encounters the stunning and demure Natacha von Braun (portrayed by a luminous Anna Karina), estranged daughter of the Professor. She is as complacent as the others if not more so, but within the depths of her doe eyes, behind a flickering innocence, Lemmy recognizes a spark of potential. He enlists her as his guide through the deadened city, and slowly begins to chip away at her compliance to conformity by reading her poems—heresy, as far as Alpha 60 is concerned—from Capitale de la douleur (Capital of Pain), a collection by Paul Éluard. He teaches her the meanings of words like “love” and “conscience,” both of which have been revoked from the dictionary, and in doing so he introduces vibrant bursts of emotional colour into her black-and-white existence. Her fear of this exotic man and his exotic ways is only overshadowed by her curiosity and an insatiable desire to feel.
As the film progresses, the unflappable detective falls for Natacha. Love blossoms in a world devoid of it—a barren landscape of logic modeled after Alpha 60’s own thought processes—proving that emotion, once unleashed, does in fact trump rationality. He teaches her that love is a feeling that, while able to be reciprocated, is ultimately a sentiment felt by the individual; thus, love becomes the antithesis of Alpha 60’s dehumanizing campaign to eliminate individuality. Unpredictability and vibrancy begin seeping through the city’s cracks, and Alphaville picks up pace, with Lemmy closing in on the sentient computer. He traverses the streets, glimpsing stranger and stranger sights; for example, a mass execution is carried out at an Olympic swimming pool, with swanlike divers executing graceful movements as they carry corpses out of the water—Godard’s trademark incongruity striking again.
It all culminates in a final tête-à-tête, where Lemmy and Alpha 60 clash in the clever usage of poetry and a riddle. The ensuing series of events demonstrate how Alphaville did not serve as proof of the power of technology, but rather the flexibility of mankind. Alpha 60 did not evolve to match the emotive superiority of humans; humans adapted to accommodate the rigid sterilization of the computer. Lemmy and all he represents—love, independence, primitiveness, spontaneity—are in direct conflict with Alpha 60, a riveting contrast that powers the film’s progression, executed in a manner that not only expresses but emphasizes this contrast. Godard’s stylistic unpredictability came off as baffling, incongruous and utterly absurd, but evolves to become an extension of Lemmy’s own spontaneity; it’s the cinematic manifestation of humanity that was the downfall of technology.
In this artistic masterpiece, Godard has created a story built on contrasting components. Somehow, he’s managed to craft this world—Alphaville—in which rickety elevators occur within minimalist, futuristic architecture, and Instamatic cameras are handled alongside Colt Commander pistols. A weathered, unshakable detective falls for his naively beautiful companion, while unspeakable violence occurs amidst cheery music and golf claps; love triumphs a cold and calculating machine. Through these conflicting elements, Alphaville shows us all the insatiability and strength of humanity’s desire to not only live, but to feel.