Godard developed a style of remaining distanced, of observing his characters, often leaving them to improvise while he tried to capture the immediacy of their action and reaction. In "Alphaville" - originally entitled "Tarzan vs. IBM" - Godard combines a futuristic, science fiction tale with American gangster noir and the comic book tradition to explore the dehumanising effects of computers and the corporate identities they create. Made in 1965, its vision is extraordinary. While the 'new' technology demonstrated in the film now appears clunky and quaint, "Alphaville" parallels Orwell's "1984" in creating a dystopic vision of the future.
Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is agent 003, a Dick Tracy character, complete with trenchcoat, felt hat, Zippo, and a .45 calibre automatic. He has come to Alphaville to assassinate its dictator, Professor Von Braun. This is a city ruled by the computer, the Alpha-60, and its scientist creators and neophytes. Politics no longer exists, only the dehumanising logic of the binary system.
Shot in Paris on a very tight budget, Godard makes graphic use of his surroundings, playing with the black and white images and emphasising the ruggedness of Constantine and the striking beauty of Anna Karina. In doing so, he revisits a science fiction theme - computers and new technology will transform the physical world, this is true, but their most immediate, global, and lasting impact will be in the reconfiguration of the human mind and consciousness.
The film opens with the legend, "Sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication." While Godard will employ his typical blend of visual imagery, flashing words and still pictures on the screen, making philosophical and literary references beyond the story, etc., "Alphaville" follows a more obviously linear narrative path than his earlier films.
In this futuristic world, people are no longer capable of free thought. They must adhere to the control of the computer. Each hotel room is equipped with a bible - in the form of a dictionary which lists what words are acceptable and what their meaning must be. Those who express the forbidden emotions of love or betray contrary thinking are to be executed. The computer interrogates those suspected of crime, denouncing them as liars if they do not adhere to established truths.
Lemmy Caution poses as a journalist for 'Figaro-Pravda' - a blend of French and Soviet newspapers. The role of the journalist is to enforce the truth, to disseminate what the State wants its citizens to believe. Before the word, nothing existed. Language is responsible for bringing reality into existence. But Caution appreciates that the seeds of destruction lie not in the future, but in the meanings we inherit from the past. Ironically, for 'the word', we can now read 'cinema'. Film, Goddard is suggesting, can no more be trusted than a dictionary.
Alpha-60 has analysed the past and realised that man cannot create his own future with any certainty. It is vital that the computer take control and change people into logical travellers into the future. The present is terrifying because it is irreversible. Once people become mere ants, automatically obeying instructions to create structures beyond their ken, they will be free of the stress of uncertainty. The computer is a very moral beast.
Godard's vision of this computerised world is bleak and terrifying. While the narrative sweeps along, it is not a story which can simply be enjoyed. As a viewer, you have to concentrate and try to absorb the themes and images. The acting is consciously stylised, the direction and editing curt and sometimes oblique. The portrayal is that of comic book good versus evil, yet values and morality are fluid to say the least.
Perhaps "Alphaville's" message is symbolised by the habitual greeting exchanged by its characters - "I'm fine thank you, you're welcome", voiced as a simple statement on meeting or leaving. Communication is symbolic, devoid of feeling or individuality. The story reduces its characters to caricatures who act out their instructions against a soundtrack of ironic, B-movie music which seems to instruct the viewer that this is meant to be a moment of cinematographic tension.
The film, therefore, defines meaning as clearly as does a dictionary or computer. This is how you are supposed to think, these are the emotions you are required to feel at this point. Godard, as ever, challenges this message. As a viewer, you are forced to deconstruct his images and narrative and assess meaning for yourself.
A demanding film, a highly entertaining film, an extraordinarily rewarding film, and one which should be watched again and again by all lovers of cinema and students of filmmaking.
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