Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard | 1hr 40min

Highly stylised, futuristic visual designs do not always mesh so well with low-budget location shooting, but for a postmodern master of avant-garde cinematic form like Jean-Luc Godard, such delightful incongruity only strengthens his genre deconstructions. Alphaville is his take on film noir, but it is also a science-fiction set in a dystopian city, with hints of George Orwell and German expressionism, as well as the seeds of what would later become 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Why then has it fallen so far by the wayside when considering the widespread reverence held for those pieces of art that influenced it, and which it influenced in turn? Perhaps the answer can be found in Godard’s characteristic dissonance that rejects complete narrative immersion, striving to understand how authoritarianism is represented through the medium of film, rather than any traditional examination of the ideology itself. With that set as his thesis, Alphaville doesn’t just take a stand against artistic and emotional censorship, but rather becomes an act of creative rebellion in its very construction.

With the film’s exterior scenes being shot largely on the streets of Paris at night, it does not take a huge leap for Godard to reimagine its modernist buildings and streets as a futuristic society crawling with shadows and pierced by stark, white lights emanating from neon signs, cars, and streetlamps. This may be an economical choice, but it is also a purposefully stylistic one, turning away from artificial sets in favour of realistic environments that seem both familiar and slightly alien.

The streets of Paris at night become the science-fiction dystopia of Alphaville, with each light radiating an eerie aura and bouncing off the wet pavement. A unique blend of futuristic visual designs and location shooting.
Modern architecture that belongs to both 1960s Paris and Godard’s bureaucratic technocracy – he is endlessly inventive with his location scouting and the way he frames his structures.

Ruling this metropolis is Alpha 60, a Big Brother figure that manifests a menacing, croaky voice paired with a single, circular light, occasionally beaming out from behind whirring fan blades like some mechanical piece of artificial intelligence. Alpha 60 is not our protagonist, but it is essentially our narrator, with its ominous voiceover indoctrinating us into its cold rule of didactic reasoning. Its assertion that Alphaville’s technocracy is founded on logic is absurdly inconsistent with its resistance to questioning, though it is evident that the blind acceptance of rules it demands simply serves to suppress anything vaguely human.

“The acts of man through the centuries will gradually destroy them. I, Alpha 60, I am merely the logical means of this destruction.”

Alpha 60’s design is a prototype for HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not a surprise given Stanley Kubrick’s praise for this film.
Expressionistic lighting doesn’t need to be complicated – a single, hanging light bulb does the trick here on this stairwell, swinging back and forth.

Lemmy Caution is the craggy-faced secret agent from the ‘Outside Countries’ who comes into Alphaville with a mission to end Alpha 60’s reign of tyranny, but in his character design he bears far greater resemblance to a straight-talking, Philip Marlowe-type detective, ripped from the pages of a pulpy Raymond Chandler novel. Paired with this hard-boiled archetype is Anna Karina’s femme fatale, Natacha von Braun, who has lived her life by the rigid rules set by her father, who is also the city’s malevolent creator. To her, words like “love” and “conscience” are completely foreign, both being banned from Alphaville’s dialect that is specifically designed to limit freedom of thought. Upon meeting Lemmy, we can see pieces of his passion bleed into her, destabilising the brittle foundations of Alpha 60’s despotism.

Anna Karina on her run of films with Godard is magnetic as a femme fatale, proving her own versatility through different archetypes and genres.
You have to admire Godard’s ability to pick out these locations as backdrops. A wild, delirious wallpaper pattern to match the narrative.

Like The Big Sleep and so many other film noirs that came before, Alphaville possesses a dizzying plot that lands us at the mercy of a shady world which cannot be fully penetrated, constantly moving two paces ahead of any single character or viewer. Beyond the shadowy city streets, the bright interiors of buildings become havens from this darkness, lining ceilings with rows upon rows of lights caught from low angles that press down upon our characters. As Godard’s handheld camera passes through the modernist architecture in long takes, we acclimate to this fascinating environment of glass elevators and elaborate spiral staircases that simultaneously belong to 1960s Paris and reach into some progressive vision of its future.

Rows of light fixtures from low angles, spiral staircases, glass windows, long corridors, angular geometry – perhaps Godard’s greatest achievement in shooting architecture, crafting a world of harsh modernity.

It is not merely the immediate atmosphere that consumes us in Alphaville though, as Godard goes on to push his rejection of narrative transparency even further with formal cutaways to the Parisian neon street signs spelling out symbols and equations. These limited, inflexible forms of linguistic expression break up scenes like punctuation marks, reminding us of the world beyond Lemmy’s immediate experience, as well as Godard’s own presence in this story as a disturber of its continuity. Similarly, the suspenseful musical theme of accented horns and strings at first simply sits in the background, but each time it is repeated it announces itself just a little bit more, denying us the cadenced resolution we crave. With his trademark jump cuts and direct addresses to the camera topping off his self-aware style, he keeps us constantly living on a layer removed from the story, recognising the artifice of every technique, motif, and archetype that defines this film, and the science-fiction and noir genres at large.

Godard’s cutaways to neon signs display symbols and equations, underlining the sinister system of logic governing this society.

As Lemmy achieves his great victory over Alpha 60 towards the end, shots of unprocessed negative film invert shades of black and white while the city falls apart, its systematic oppression finally being reversed and Godard’s loud, audacious style proclaiming itself within the very fabric of the projected reel. Like his protagonist, he stages his own angry, one-man riot against the stifling limitations imposed upon artists within the old Alphaville, distinctly exerting his creative power as a director, not just a mere observer of events. The citizens’ conditioning to replace questions of “Why?” with firm statements of “Because” is the antithesis of everything he stands for, most of all regarding cinematic convention. It is not enough to simply continue film noir and science fiction traditions, but getting to their reasons for existence by bringing them to our attention and stretching them to their limits is the basis of his playfully wicked experimentations in Alphaville, confidently asserting the inalienable right to imagination and curiosity among all humans, whether they be real or fictional.

Negative film as Alphaville is inverted on itself – a bold stylistic move from Godard.

Alphaville is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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