Blog Directory CineVerse: Noir meets sci-fi, French New Wave style

Noir meets sci-fi, French New Wave style

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Imagine a science-fiction movie loaded with fascinating ideas and themes but boasting zero special effects. The end product would probably be a lot like Alphaville, a 1965 French film helmed by the influential director Jean-Luc Godard, which emerged just after the zenith of the French New Wave cinema movement. Set against a dystopian backdrop, the narrative follows Lemmy Caution, portrayed by American actor Eddie Constantine, a clandestine operative navigating the emotionless metropolis of Alphaville. Governed by the supercomputer Alpha 60, which orchestrates every facet of existence while stifling human emotions, Caution's directive is to locate and dismantle Alpha 60.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Alphaville, conducted last week.

Consider how any science-fiction film today would be crucified by the public for daring to lack the dollars and digital resources we expect of a futuristic genre picture. Yet, despite lacking visual effects, a major budget, or a sacrosanct script (much of the acting and dialogue were widely improvised), the work benefits from a unique visual aesthetic, characterized by stark and minimalist set designs and Godard's incorporation of urban landscapes and modern architecture that contribute to the setting’s Orwellian ambiance. Godard also impressively blends sci-fi and noir elements as well as high and low culture with this production, and he peppers the film with interesting pop culture references--from Dick Tracy and Heckl and Jeckl to Ford automobiles and Nosferatu.

This is, after all, a film by one of the architects of the French New Wave and an extreme cinematic experimenter, so it’s no surprise Alphaville looks and feels vastly different from other movies of this period. He employs jump cuts, long takes juxtaposed with quick cuts, and a hodgepodge of stylistic choices, including using negative photography. His characters even occasionally break the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera.

DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson admired this approach, writing: “Godard constructs his movies like unrepentant beat poetry. Many have ragged inter-titles arbitrarily inserting bald political messages, sometimes frustratingly obvious ones. In Alphaville, the screen is constantly being seized by neon signs, drawings and traffic signals, etc. Here they signify the aura of the omniscient Alpha-60 computer, a menace represented visually by whirring fans and crude flashing lights accompanied by telegraph noises…Godard doesn't try to compensate for a lack of traditional production values but instead flaunts his budget 'weaknesses' by declaring them irrelevant. There are no special effects except for flashing to negative every once in a while -- to perhaps represent the malfunctioning of Alpha-60? Raoul Coutard's handheld photography is actually very smooth, even beautiful. There are a number of well-shot scenes that contrast with setups as crude as anything in a no-budget exploitation movie. It's the artistic tone of Godard's film that says, 'I'm trying to express myself here. This is Jazz. Read between the images - it's not my job to put a perfect phony image in front of your faces at all times.'”

The score for Alphaville can register as unrelentingly self-serious and bombastic, but it hints at Godard’s winking parodic style. He’s often playing with tropes of the noir/detective genre, as when Caution suddenly tussles with an assassin in his hotel room or when he’s being manhandled by the police. Being that the mid-60s was also the prime era of the secret agent thriller film/story, Godard has fun with the iconography and conventions of this subgenre, particularly by casting Constantine as Caution, a character he’d played in a string of B films for other directors before Alphaville.

One of the big ideas driving this cinematic bus is that love conquers logic. This is a treatise on the dehumanization of society and how technological progress can gradually strip us of our individuality, personal freedoms, and self-expression. Godard imagines a dystopian future in which emotions are outlawed, replaced by cold intellectualism and a reliance on artificial intelligence. Caution disrupts this new order when he arrives in Alphaville and rejects the prevailing rules.

It's also a film that espouses staying true to yourself and your ideals. Caution refuses to accept Alphaville’s laws and structure, which often take on a geometrically symbolic circular pattern, fitting considering the circular logic offered by the Alpha 60 supercomputer and even the architecture we see, suggesting that this society is “going in circles”; by contrast, Contrast gets to the heart of the matter quickly by going in a straight line and not deviating from his goals. Recall how the words within the love poem shared by Natasha and Lemmy mention “going straight to what you love.” 
“The moral of the story, if there is one, seems to be that a commitment to one’s ideals, to one’s possibilities, regardless of how implausible they may appear to the society that one lives in, are the sole method through which can oppose systems of mental and political domination...(Natacha’s) role in the film is essentially to illustrate the possibility that an individual completely imprisoned within a system of ideology may still somehow break out,” wrote Maximilian Yoshioka with Bright Lights Film Journal, who went on to suggest that Alphaville asks probing questions that require careful examination: “But if only those who have existed outside of a particular system of power-knowledge have the potential to escape from it, do those indoctrinated from birth have no hope? And then of course there is the question of what happens to those who escape from oppressive systems; are their new destinations ever free from forms of political oppression and domination?”

Alphaville ruminates, too, on the power of poetry and imagination: not just written words but the ability to express yourself creatively and freely and to be inspired by love and emotion, which Alpha 60 cannot compute. Here, words are also important, however, as evidenced by how Alphaville’s dictionary is constantly being updated, with words regularly being removed or replaced, and how books are vanishing.

Additionally, this is yet another tale of the individual versus the state. The filmmakers depict a somewhat futuristic totalitarian/fascist society where the population is forced to conform to new rules of dispassionate reasoning dictated by a technological overlord, robbing humans of their humanity, free speech, and feelings. But Caution upends this structure by demonstrating that one person who dares to disagree and cut right to the heart of the problem (in this story, that means directly addressing and perplexing Alpha 60) can make a difference--as he does by rescuing Natasha from an underworld of brainwashed compliance and subservience, returning her to the real world a la the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

Similar works

  • Blade Runner
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • The Matrix
  • Brazil
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers
  • THX-1138
  • Equilibrium
  • Dark City
  • Gattaca
  • Orpheus
  • Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood)
  • 1984 and Brave New World

Other films by Godard

  • Breathless
  • Masculin-Feminin
  • Band of Outsiders
  • Contempt
  • Pierrot le Fou

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