Alphaville (film)

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Alphaville
Alphaville1965.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJean-Luc Godard
Written byJean-Luc Godard
Produced byAndré Michelin
StarringEddie Constantine
Anna Karina
Akim Tamiroff
Howard Vernon
CinematographyRaoul Coutard
Edited byAgnès Guillemot
Music byPaul Misraki
Distributed byAthos Films
Release date
5 May 1965 (1965-05-05)
Running time
99 minutes
CountryFrance
LanguageFrench

Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution) is a 1965 French New Wave science fiction neo-noir film directed by Jean-Luc Godard. It stars Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Howard Vernon and Akim Tamiroff. The film won the Golden Bear award of the 15th Berlin International Film Festival in 1965.[1][2]

Alphaville combines the genres of dystopian science fiction and film noir. There are no special props or futuristic sets; instead, the film was shot in real locations in Paris, the night-time streets of the capital becoming the streets of Alphaville, while modernist glass and concrete buildings (that in 1965 were new and strange architectural designs) represent the city's interiors. The film is set in the future but the characters also refer to twentieth-century events; for example, the hero describes himself as a Guadalcanal veteran.

Expatriate American actor Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, a trenchcoat-wearing secret agent. Constantine had already played this or similar roles in dozens of previous films; the character was originally created by British pulp novelist Peter Cheyney. However, in Alphaville, director Jean-Luc Godard moves Caution away from his usual twentieth-century setting and places him in a futuristic sci-fi dystopia, the technocratic dictatorship of Alphaville.

Plot[edit]

Lemmy Caution is a secret agent with the code number of 003 from "the Outlands". Entering Alphaville in his Ford Galaxie,[3] he poses as a journalist named Ivan Johnson and claims to work for the Figaro-Pravda. Caution is on a series of missions. First, he searches for the missing agent Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff); second, he is to capture or kill the creator of Alphaville, Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon); lastly, he aims to destroy Alphaville and its dictatorial computer, Alpha 60. Alpha 60 is a sentient computer system created by von Braun, which is in complete control of all of Alphaville.

Alpha 60 has outlawed free thought and individualist concepts like love, poetry, and emotion in the city, replacing them with contradictory concepts or eliminating them altogether. One of Alpha 60's dictates is that "people should not ask 'why', but only say 'because'". People who show signs of emotion are presumed to be acting illogically and are gathered up, interrogated, and executed. In an image reminiscent of George Orwell's concept of Newspeak, there is a dictionary in every hotel room that is continuously updated when words that are deemed to evoke emotion become banned. As a result, Alphaville is an inhuman, alienated society.

Images of the E = mc2 and E = hf (the iconic equations of, respectively, Special relativity and Quantum mechanics, the two great scientific developments of the first half of the twentieth century) are displayed several times throughout the film as referents for the scientism that underpins Alphaville. At one point, Caution passes through a place called the Grand Omega Minus, from where brainwashed people are sent out to the other "galaxies" to start strikes, revolutions, family rows, and student revolts.

As an archetypal American anti-hero private eye in trenchcoat and with weathered visage, Lemmy Caution's old-fashioned machismo conflicts with the puritanical computer (Godard originally wanted to title the film Tarzan versus IBM).[4] The opposition of his role to logic (and that of other dissidents to the regime) is represented by faux-quotations from Capitale de la douleur ("Capital of Pain"), a book of poems by Paul Éluard.

Caution meets Dickson, who soon dies in the process of making love to a "Seductress Third Class". Caution then enlists the assistance of Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), a programmer of Alpha 60 and daughter of Professor von Braun. Natacha is a citizen of Alphaville and when questioned, says that she does not know the meaning of "love" or "conscience". Caution falls in love with her, and his love introduces emotion and unpredictability into the city. Natacha discovers, with the help of Lemmy Caution, that she was actually born outside of Alphaville. (The city name is given as Nueva York—Spanish for New York—instead of either the original English name or the French literal rendering "Nouvelle York".)

Professor von Braun (the name is a reference to the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun[5]) was originally known as Leonard Nosferatu (a tribute to F. W. Murnau's film Nosferatu), but Caution is repeatedly told that Nosferatu no longer exists. The Professor himself talks infrequently, referring only vaguely to his hatred for journalists, and offering Caution the chance to join Alphaville, even going so far as to offer him the opportunity to rule a galaxy. When he refuses Caution's offer to go back to "the outlands", Caution kills him.

Alpha 60 converses with Lemmy Caution several times throughout the film, and its voice is seemingly ever-present in the city, serving as a sort of narrator. Caution eventually destroys or incapacitates it by telling it a riddle that involves something Alpha 60 can not comprehend: poetry (although many of Alpha 60's lines are actually quotations from the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges; the opening line of the film, along with others, is an extract of Borges's essay "Forms of a Legend", and other references throughout the movie are made by Alpha 60 to Borges's "A New Refutation of Time"). The concept of the individual self has been lost to the collectivized citizens of Alphaville, and this is the key to Caution's riddle.

At the end, as Paul Misraki's musical score reaches its climax, Natacha realizes that it is her understanding of herself as an individual with desires that saves her, and destroys Alpha 60. The film ends with her line "Je vous aime" ("I love you").

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

“Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon) has invented the omniscient computer that rules the lives of the Alphaville citizens...The dominating computer, reducing life to ‘logic’...replaces the individual’s will with a tranquilized submission...In Alphaville, by computer decree, killing is a spectator sport. At a swimming pool, illogical [disobedient] men...are blindfolded and made to stand on diving boards. They are shot and fall into the water, whereupon girls with knives dive into the pool and hack at the bodies. All this is greeted with polite applause from the tranquilized onlookers. The atmosphere is totally unemotional.” - Film historian Gordon Gow in Suspense in the Cinema (1968).[6]

Despite its futuristic scenario, Alphaville was filmed entirely in and around Paris and no special sets or props were constructed. Buildings used were the Electricity Board building for the Alpha 60 computer centre and the Hotel Scribe.[7]

Constantine came to the film through producer André Michelin, who had the actor under contract. Constantine had become a popular actor in France and Germany through his portrayal of tough-guy detective Lemmy Caution in a series of earlier films. Godard appropriated the character for Alphaville but according to director Anne Andreu,[8] Godard's subversion of the Lemmy Caution "stereotype" effectively shattered Constantine's connection with the character—he reportedly said that he was shunned by producers after Alphaville was released. Constantine didn't play Lemmy Caution again until Panic Time in 1980.[9]

The opening section of the film includes an unedited sequence that depicts Caution walking into his hotel, checking in, riding an elevator and being taken through various corridors to his room. According to cinematographer Raoul Coutard, he and Godard shot this section as a continuous four-minute take. Part of this sequence shows Caution riding an elevator up to his room, which was achieved thanks to the fact that the hotel used as the location had two glass-walled elevators side by side, allowing the camera operator to ride in one lift while filming Constantine riding the other car through the glass between the two. However, as Coutard recalled, this required multiple takes, since the elevators were old and in practice they proved very difficult to synchronize.[8]

Like most of Godard's films, the performances and dialogue in Alphaville were substantially improvised. Assistant director Charles Bitsch recalled that, even when production commenced he had no idea what Godard was planning to do. Godard's first act was to ask Bitsch to write a screenplay, saying that producer Michelin had been pestering him for a script because he needed it to help him raise finance from backers in Germany (where Constantine was popular). Bitsch protested that he had never read a Lemmy Caution book, but Godard simply said "Read one and then write it." Bitsch read a Caution book, then wrote a 30-page treatment and brought it to Godard, who said "OK, fine" and took it without even looking at it. It was then given to Michelin, who was pleased with the result, and the "script" was duly translated into German and sent off to the backers. In fact, none of it even reached the screen and according to Bitsch the German backers later asked Michelin to repay the money when they saw the completed film.[8]

Influences on the film[edit]

  • Louis-Ferdinand Céline is directly referenced by Caution in the taxi, when he says "I am on a journey to the end of the night" (Voyage au bout de la nuit, 1932). Also, the use of poetry to combat Alpha 60 as a sentient being echoes the attitudes of Céline in a number of his works.
  • Jean Cocteau exerted significant influence on Godard's films,[10] and parallels between Alphaville and Cocteau's 1950 film Orpheus are evident. For example, Orphée's search for Cégeste and Caution's for Henri Dickson, between the poems Orphée hears on the radio and the aphoristic questions given by Alpha 60, between Orphée's victory over death through the recovery of his poetic powers and Caution's use of poetry to destroy Alpha 60.[10] Godard also openly acknowledges his debt to Cocteau on several occasions.[11] When Alpha 60 is destroyed, for instance, people stagger down labyrinthine corridors and cling to the walls like the inhabitants of Cocteau's Zone de la mort, and, at the end of the film, Caution tells Natacha not to look back. Godard compares this scene with Orphée's warning to Eurydice, and it is also possible to detect a reference here to the biblical flight from Sodom.[11]
  • The voice of Alpha 60 was performed by a man with a mechanical voice box replacing his cancer-damaged larynx.[12] It is inspired by Dr. Mabuse's disembodied voice in the 1933 film The Testament of Dr Mabuse.[13]

Legacy[edit]

Reception[edit]

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Alphaville received an approval rating of 91% based on 46 reviews, and an average rating of 8.36/10. Its consensus reads, "While Alphaville is by no means a conventional sci-fi film, Jean-Luc Godard creates a witty, noir-ish future all his own."[20] Time Out London gave the film a positive review, calling it "a dazzling amalgam of film noir and science fiction".[21]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Berlinale 1965: Prize Winners". berlinale.de. Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  2. ^ MacCabe, Colin (2005). Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy. Macmillan. p. 347. ISBN 0-571-21105-4.
  3. ^ Pérez, Gilberto (2000). The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 358. ISBN 978-0-8018-6523-7.
  4. ^ Darke (2005), p. 10
  5. ^ Darke (2005), p. 76
  6. ^ Gow, Gordon. 1968. Suspense in the Cinema. Castle Books, New York. The Tanvity Press and A. S. Barnes & Co. Inc. Library of Congress Catalog Card No: 68-15196. Pp. 119-120
  7. ^ Trenholm, Rich (19 November 2009). "The future is now: Sci-fi films in real locations". CNET. Archived from the original on 15 April 2012.
  8. ^ a b c "Alphaville, périphéries" ("The Outskirts of Alphaville"), special feature, Alphaville DVD release, Studio Canal/Universal, 2007
  9. ^ "Eddie Constantine".
  10. ^ a b Godard (1986), p. 277
  11. ^ a b Godard (1986), p. 278
  12. ^ Darke (2005), p. 39
  13. ^ Darke (2005), p. 101
  14. ^ "Alphaville | Biography & History". AllMusic. Retrieved 27 October 2020.
  15. ^ Davis, Mike (2006). Planet of Slums. London: Verso. p. 117. ISBN 1-84467-022-8.
  16. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmyYHC55kjo
  17. ^ Dawson, Nick (9 May 2007). "Christoffer Boe, Allegro". Filmmaker Magazine. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
  18. ^ "Kelly Osbourne Plays New-Wave Femme Fatale in 'One Word'".
  19. ^ "Alphaville Suite". RogueArt. Retrieved 25 March 2015.
  20. ^ "Alphaville (1965) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes.com. Fandango Media. Retrieved 2 July 2019.
  21. ^ "Alphaville, directed by Jean-Luc Godard". Time Out.com. Time Out London. Retrieved 17 October 2018.

References[edit]

External links[edit]