Sunday 2 December 2012

Alphaville, une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

My first association when I saw "Alphaville" was a commercial for coffee. The commercial I have in mind is very dark, strange and very French ending with the line “Do you think this is black? Then you should try Café Noir”.

Of course the commercial is a spoof on arty and dark French movies, but here in “Alphaville” we got the real thing. Very dark, very arty and, well, French.

Mind you, I do not have a problem with either of those elements, but after having been entrenched in the thirties and early forties so long I was not really prepared for an opaque, new wave film so I felt quite lost at times. I was constantly left with the feeling that I must have missed that short bit that was the key to understand what was going on.

I think I got the bigger picture. Well, sort of.

The story takes place in Alphaville, claimed to be a city on a remote planet. The city is ruled by a computer, Alpha 60, who in turn is operated by a group of engineers. Alphaville is a queer sort of place. It is supposed to by ruled strictly by logic and that policy is enforced by rooting out any freethinkers by killing or brainwashing them.

Only, there is nothing futuristic about Alphaville at all. It is a current (well, in ’65) French city that appear very bleak and oppressive mainly due to the very dark and often grainy filming. Even the technology is very 65 and it all frankly look like Paris turned North Korean. I frankly do not understand this pretense of this taking place on a distant planet in some unknown future when the pictures show this obviously not to be the case.

Another weird thing about the city of Alphaville is that for a place that swears to logic it is a very illogical place. A lot of the happenings is outright strange like the execution of freethinkers who are shot in a swimming pool and then stabbed to death by 4 or 5 swimming girls to the applause of an audience.

Alphaville is also hell bent on world domination.

The citizens of Alphaville are zombielike brainwashed, almost robotic people, all under control by the main computer.

Into this world comes Mr. Johnson alias Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine). He is the almost cliché hardboiled, grumpy agent type, complete with trench coat, hat, gun and day long stubble. Johnson/Caution is travelling undercover as a journalist to contact to opposition in Alphavile, those who can still think outside the box, kill the chief engineer behind Apha 60 and destroy Alphaville. Yeah!

In the process he meets Natacha von Braun, a citizen of Alphaville and apparently daughter of the chief engineer. She is as zombie as any other citizen, but underneath the conditioning she is struggling to break free. She is played by the gorgeous Anna Karina and at times I felt that it was her alone that made it worthwhile to see the movie.

All this would make for a spectacular action movie. Instead it is film noir with emphasis on noir. The dialogue is obscure in the extreme. Often I simply have no clue to what they are talking about. Somehow poetry is intertwined in the dialogue and I suppose it is to symbolize the freedom of mind, but often it just becomes blabber. Actions taken by the characters happen out of the blue. Suddenly people are killed, suddenly there is urgency and running or people appear without any explanation. That all contribute to that unsettling feeling that I think I know the overall picture but the detail of the story is blurred into obscurity.

With the dark moody feel to it combined with the dystrophic sci-fi story I really want to like it, but when not even subtitles help me in understanding the pictures I feel a bit lost. You might call it a Lynch moment, but with Lynch at least I feel it can be decoded if I put my mind to it. Here it just becomes strange.

The second association I had watching this film was to Blade Runner. The 40’es style detective, grubby and tough, up against a bunch of almost human robots in a dystrophic future setting. He meets the daughter (maybe) of the big creator who is or is not human enough to be saved. Here Tyrell has become von Braun or professor Nosferatu (?!) and the cold wet city that kill the human spirit is Alphaville. It is not a complete analogy, but surely Ripley Scott saw Alphaville before making Blade Runner.

A third though: If Jim Jarmusch has made Blade Runner it probably would have looked like “Alphaville”. “Alphaville” is definitely stranger than paradise.


  1. This film confused me, not in the plot, but in whether it was supposed to be a parody or not. The action and events were so over the top (the detective shooting every other person he sees, the burping computer, driving out of the city in a car to return to Earth, etc.) that I spent a good chunk of the film wondering if I was supposed to be laughing or not. Everything I had heard about it was that this was a serious film from a serious filmmaker, yet here it was in front of my eyes and I found it to be so ridiculous that I was chuckling. I'm still not sure if it was supposed to make me laugh or not.

    1. I am left with a feeling the director was intending some deep meaning with this; the distant planet, which is just Paris, the highly illogical town that hail logic, the outright ridicoulus computer voice and the over the top detective character. Unfortunately the deep meaning is lost on me and instead it appears more like a spoof movie on some arty French agent movie.
      And yes, I was frequently laughing.

  2. I have had a chance now to read want others have been commenting on Alphaville and had some time to think on it. I think Godard is making a critique of comtemporary society in France (surprise!). He has always been in constant opposition and has not been able to work it out with just about anyone, so for him to think that society is oppressing him with some sort of thought police sounds plausible. This is also in the mood du jour in 65 with the youth rebellion, free everything and down with the tyranny of the professors. Godard is thinly veiling it as sci-fi, but that is so thin, poorly made and paste on that it almost screams that this should not be seen as science fiction, but a contemporary picture of France/Paris. The hardboiled, trigger happy Lemmy Caution is his way of taking it out on this "oppresive mind police" he claims surrounds him. He want to kick their butt and do it with this brutal figure. Basically I think Alphaville is one big egotrip on the part of Godard and I have a feeling you have to be in his shoes to really appreciate it.

  3. You make an excellent point when you say that Alphaville looks like Paris turned North Korea. Godard drives me crazy sometimes--and especially here.

    1. Thank you! I have a feeling Godard thought he lived in North Korea. I have not seen too much of his stuff yet, and frankly I am not looking forward to it.