Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thought Crime

Film: Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

A note: Typically, I refer to foreign films by their foreign language title in my write-ups. Today, however, since the first word of the English title is precisely the same as the French title, and because the French title is so long, it is easier to simply call the film by its English name.

I was recently asked by a co-1001 Movies blogger if I had watched any Godard yet. I hadn’t at the time, but assured him that I would undoubtedly dip my toes into the Godard pond this week, thus Alphaville in the spinner tonight. It’s hardly a stretch to say that in this day and age, Godard is no longer the most culturally relevant Jean-Luc for most people. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only a true thing. I’m guilty of the same. Say “Jean-Luc” to me, and I’ll respond “Picard” long before I’ll say “Godard.”

Before we delve to heavily into this film, it’s worth getting a few things out of the way. Lemmy Caution is the creation of British pulp writer Peter Cheyney. Eddie Constantine, who plays Caution in this film, played the same role a number of times before this film was made. Caution is, therefore, the British equivalent of Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade.

Similarities to other Lemmy Caution films ends here. In true existential fashion, Alphaville takes place in a sort of no-time and no-place. Certainly with some of the events and ideas here, the film is absolutely science fiction. However, the film also quite evidently takes place in the mid-20th century (Caution refers to himself as a Guadalcanal veteran). In terms of place, all that matters is that we are in Alphaville, and that everything is run by Alpha 60.

So what is Alpha 60? It’s the computer that runs Alphaville with an iron processor. Alpha 60 has made emotion illegal within the city limits of Alphaville. It is a sentient machine that has determined that the only way to have the city run efficiently is to eliminate anything that does not make perfectly logical sense. In short, love, art, poetry, and emotion are all illegal within the city. Failure to comply means a brutal interrogation followed by execution, even for the smallest infractions, like displaying grief at the death of a spouse.

Essentially, this film falls in terms of ideal between Orwell’s 1984 and George Lucas’s THX1138. Like Orwell’s work, the society is highly dystopic and rigidly controlled by an overwhelming, implacable force. Resistance is essentially futile because it is impossible to organize any resistance. Like Big Brother, the computer is everywhere and is always looking for any slip or sign of weakness to eliminate anything that stands in the way of its complete power. Like Lucas’s film that follows this one, there is no love or emotion, and expressing either is a crime of the highest order.

Caution’s task here is to initially find an operative named Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff) who has not reported back for a long time. Caution finds the man, who speaks rather cryptically, dallies a bit with a local prostitute, and then dies, telling Caution that Alpha 60 must be destroyed. Coincidentally, Caution is also charged with locating and either bringing back or eliminating a man named von Braun, who created Apha 60.

Caution meets von Braun’s daughter Natasha (Anna Karina), who claims to have never met her father, nor stepped foot outside of Alphaville into the Outlands. Similarly, and predictably considering the city she was raised in, Natasha has no concept of love or morality or conscience.

Like any good noir, Caution is tempted by the devil, in this case von Braun. As Caution digs further into the city, he discovers that Alpha 60 is sending potential dissidents out to other places, other worlds, to foment revolution, hopefully bringing about more Alpha 60-style societies throughout the universe. And so, as befits many films from the mid-‘60s, there is a strong anti-communist sense to this film as well.

Ultimately, the idea here is about sense of self and individualism. Just as Orwell feared the destruction of the unique person in the service to the state, Godard fears the loss of self and emotion as being the loss of that which makes us human. It’s a nice metaphor, and it works pretty well throughout.

Eddie Constantine does look very much like a traditional noir private dick. In his fedora and trench coat, he looks the part, and his craggy, weathered face that looks chiseled out of granite fits the part as well. His complete lack of emotion throughout actually works well here, too. The anti-heroes in noirs often tend to be emotionless, even when dealing out violence, something that Caution does frequently here.

The film is disturbingly weird. Most bothersome here is the soundtrack, which seems to play nothing but the same Baaaaaahm-Bamp! Buuuuuuuuhm-Bamp! over and over. It gets oppressive quickly. Just as disturbing is the narrator-like role of Alpha 60, which speaks in a deep, throaty croak that sounds like a man with a cold trying desperately to make himself belch.

And yet, I like the ultimate conclusion. For such a strange film, it’s almost uplifting at the end, despite the sudden violence, croaking voice, and lack of expressions.

Why to watch Alphaville: Une Etrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution: Existentialism that lifts rather than depresses.
Why not to watch: Croaky, belchy French.


  1. This was the first Godard film I saw, too, and it didn't do much for me other than make me laugh. I actually wonder if this is supposed to be a parody of both noir and science fiction. Caution just shoots people left and right, even someone walking up the stairs minding his own business. A guy just shows up in his bathroom out of nowhere, they break up the apartment, and the woman also there doesn't even give them a second look. There's also the constant cheesy score that you mentioned. I could go on.

    As for the SF, it feels like it was written by someone who read 1984 and Brave New World, but didn't understand either. It's also obvious Godard doesn't understand anything about science (i.e. light years are not a measure of time), but just threw in some "E=mc2" text and some scientist's names for locations to make it "sciency". It took an interplanetary flight to get to Alphaville, but Caution just drives out on a road to get home. And yes, there's the burping computer.

    Or...this is all a parody that is intentionally over the top with the noir and badly written with the SF. If it's the latter, then it achieved its goal. If it's supposed to be taken seriously, though, then I have to say I hope other Godard movies in the 1,001 book are better written than this.

  2. Yeah, in retrospect, it probably wasn't the best choice for an entry into Godard. This is such a strange film that it's hard to nail down. It probably does work best as a sort of parody, and maybe the problems I had with it were that I was trying to play it straight with a film that was playing with a wink and a nudge to me.

  3. I too liked the whole noir, dystropic feel to it, but I felt totally lost in the dialogue. Did it make much sense to you? And like Chip I carry this suspiscion that he is pulling our leg, that we are supposed to laugh. In an audience I would expect half to say: "wow that was deep!" while the other half would say: "Man, that was ridiculous".

    1. No, it didn't make a great deal of sense to me. This was my first Godard film, and I'm guessing that if I watched it again, my reaction to it would likely be different.