ALPHAVILLE (ALPHAVILLE, UNE ETRANGE AVENTURE DE LEMMY CAUTION)
(director/writer: Jean-Luc Godard; screenwriter: from the novel by Paul Éluard “La Capitale de la douleur”; cinematographer: Raoul Coutard; editor: Agnès Guillemot; music: Paul Misraki; cast: Eddie Constantine (Lemmy Caution ), Anna Karina (Natacha Von Braun), Akim Tamiroff (Henry Dickson), Jean-Louis Comolli (Professor Jeckell), Laszló Szábó (Chief Engineer), Howard Vernon (Professor Leonard Nosferatu aka Von Braun); Runtime: 98; rating: PG; producer: André Michelin; Sinister Cinema/Janus; 1965-Fr/It)
“One of the better Godard films.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
One of the better Godard films. It’s an amusing and salient satire intertwining film noir and science fiction, and is told with a narrative steeped in a pop culture, B-film and comic-strip style. The French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard’s great cinematographer Raoul Coutard, by shooting this possible classic in B&W with a dispassionate eye, turns contemporary Paris into Alphaville — an icy and barren totalitarian capital city. This was no easy feat to accomplish. The film’s hero is Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine-American born, naturalized French actor), a hard-boiled, tough talking, gumshoe, carrying a rod and garbed in a white trench coat and brown fedora, who uses the alias of journalist Ivan Johnson to infiltrate the dehumanized city of the future — Alphaville. It turns out he’s an inter-galactic agent who represents the Orpheus from mythology. Godard recreates the Orpheus and Eurydice myth in his conquest of the evil force of Alpha 60, as Caution acts the poet’s part to rescue from hell his Eurydice, Natacha Vonbraun (Anna Karina-she was married to Godard for 6 years and made 8 films with him).
Love and tenderness have been banished from Alphaville by Alpha 60, a substitute devil to be worshiped in place of God, that was created by a big IBM-like corporation that uses its computer technology to program and make the citizens slaves of logic. The supercomputer was created by Natacha’s father, Professor Von Braun (Howard Vernon), who used to be called Nosferatu the vampire. The character of Von Braun was modeled after the similar sounding Wernher Von Braun, an ex-Nazi rocket scientist who changed allegiances after WW11 and the Americans used his knowledge to help create weapons of mass destruction.
Those who play ball with the dictators of Alphaville’s state-run technocracy are lured by the promises of gold and women. Those who rebel and try to find love or cry in public are condemned as weirdos and practitioners of illogical behavior, and are colorfully executed by the state while they stand on the diving board in the Olympic-sized city swimming pool with female swimmers next to them carrying knives. The swimmers perform an aquatic diving act when retrieving the dead bodies from the water after they have been shot. To add insult to injury, the women then chop up the bodies further.
Certain words like love and conscience have been removed from the dictionary and banned from public speech. Thereby the dictionary, with the approved word list from the state, has now taken the place of the Bible.
The film’s theme, influenced by Marxist doctrines, is that the Western world has become alienated in a technological society because of the greed of capitalism and can only be saved by having an assorted combination of fictionalized romantic heroes rolled into one; such as, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy and a stock film noir Hollywood one like a Bogart. The hero will risk his life to fight against the Big Powers, who suppress love in order to create a loveless society that it defends as normal.
Lemmy Caution begins his mission from the Outerlands by traveling across space and time in his white Ford Galaxy. He checks into the luxurious Alphaville hotel as Ivan Johnson, a reporter from Figaro-Pravda. The efficient but robotic hotel manager assigns him a room with a Bible, a programmed Seductress who speaks in polite sentences and a bottle of tranquilizers. Lemmy refuses to hop into the bathtub with the leggy blonde Seductress, telling her he can get his own dames. His mission is to investigate the disappearance of fellow agent Henri Dickson and to bring back Professor Von Braun. Lemmy is all business and lots of bluster and macho posing, and he is all about using technology to defeat the state’s technology. He collects info by using his camera.
Lemmy makes waves wherever he goes. He drags his feet about checking in with Residents Control, as he’s told to do so by the hotel manager because it’s the law. There are no words for Why only for Because, so no one questions the law and Why.
Everyone in Alphaville has a tattoo of a number on them so they can be easily be identified and they are kept dumb about events, not unlike what repressive regimes always do (only the numbered tattoo seemed to be exclusively a Nazi thing for its concentration camp inmates).
Lemmy arranges a meeting with Natacha Vonbraun, who is unaware of her father, and he uses her as his guide through the dark and hellish city of Alphaville. He locates the despondent Dickson, who has had it with the logical world he’s forced to live in and is being encouraged by a tenant in his apartment building to commit suicide. Lemmy then meets with Professor Vonbraun, a former Outlander, and plays cat-and-mouse games with him and with his interrogators, which include the computer he poses an unanswerable riddle to. He learns that the best way to upset the Establishment is to fight them with their own tactics and to cause foment and to de-program the citizens through the arts and poetry. But, Vonbraun resists and has to be shot (you can’t change a fascist or a terrorist!). When Lemmy does all he can to save the world from this dictatorship, he passes this info on via radio contact with those in his department back in the Outlands. Since he has been arrested for falling in love with Natacha, it becomes necessary for him to shoot his way out of the now rebellious city being gassed by its evil authorities. He flees in his Ford, which looks somewhat like a spaceship, back home with a transformed Natacha; that is, if she doesn’t look back after her rescue. He believes love can change the world and has read to her passages from the book entitled The Capital of Pain in the hopes that she can learn to think for herself.
It’s an enticing and memorable film mainly for its stunning look and chilling feel, but it’s not all that endearing and had nothing fresh to say. Though it offers a stern warning to be wary of blindly giving one’s obedience to religion or science or ideology or art or politics, because when men can’t think for themselves and rely on dictators, machines and logic to rule their lives — freedom and liberty can’t exist. Its shock scenes speak louder than the emotionless dialogue. To its credit, there was no use of special effects.
REVIEWED ON 8/19/2002 GRADE: B