Alphaville, 1965, written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
This sci-fi/noir starts off as one of the silliest movies I’ve ever seen. Eddie Constantine plays a secret agent named Lemmy Caution. "Eddie Constantine" may just be the best name for an actor in a noir movie ever. He's got a pretty great noir face, too.
Eddie Constantine IS Lemmy Caution!
Anyway, Lemmy’s supposed to kill the inventor of Alpha 60, the computer who runs Alphaville. That runs Alphaville? Which runs Alphaville? Grammar is inadequate when you’re in the awesome presence of… Alpha 60!
The movie has all the noir conventions: Caution has voiceovers between scenes, he wears a trenchcoat and fedora and smokes like a chimney (nobody else seems to dress like him, either). Women are betrayers and seductresses. In fact, in Alphaville, it’s their job; whenever Lemmy goes back to his hotel room, he’s accompanied by a “Seductress, Third Class.” It’s all so over the top, though; you’re never sure if it’s intentionally campy or just campy.
The sci-fi aspects of Alphaville are less cartoonish, although they’re definitely a product of their time. Alpha 60, the computer that controls everything in Alphaville, fills an entire building with whirring tape drives and vacuum tubes. He speaks in a weird monotone, and gives rousing speeches to the citizens of Alphaville:
MEN, BY THEIR OWN ACTIONS OVER THE CENTURIES, WILL GRADUALLY BE DESTROYED. I, ALPHA-60, AM ONLY THE LOGICAL MEANS OF THAT DESTRUCTION.
You can see how he got control of the city: such a politician! Anyway, in Alpha 60 you can see the ancestor of HAL 9000, Skynet, and a whole lot of other sci-fi computers. The closest analogue to Alphaville, as dystopias go, is Camazotz, the planet controlled by a giant brain in A Wrinkle In Time. There, as in Alphaville, central planning has gotten a little out of control, and the only defense humans have against conformity is the one thing cold, logical machines (or brains) don’t have: love. You can probably guess how this plays out in Alphaville; Lemmy teaches a beautiful young woman how to be fully human, &c., &c., &c. I’m not sure how often this idea had been played out on screen by 1965, but I don’t think this was the first time.
Some of the later scenes in the movie are very effective, however, even if many of the big concepts fall kind of flat. There’s a really frightening scene where Lemmy and Natasha (the girl who falls for him) attend an execution. It’s held at a swimming pool. Spectators watch from a balcony as the condemned, one at a time, march to the edge of the diving board. They’re shot there, and fall into the water; four women in bathing suits jump in after them to drown them if they have survived, and retrieve the bodies (so the next person can have a nice, empty pool to fall into, presumably). It’s pretty chilling.
One other thing to note: this movie was made for basically no money, and it shows. Some of the handheld camera work is really nice in a threadbare way, though—there’s a great shot where the camera tracks Lemmy across a hotel lobby into an elevator, goes up with him, and follows him out. The shot is repeated in reverse later in the movie; both times it looks great. There’s also a very nice shot of Lemmy and Natasha having breakfast in front of a television; all you see are their hands and the meal reflected in the dead screen.
I think the low budget actually helps Godard when it comes to the sets. He shot around Paris, picking the most depressing architecture he could find; it looks as dystopian now as it did then. The best moment of this type: Lemmy and one of Alpha 60’s technicians walk down an endless hall with closed doors on either side. As they walk, fluorescent lights weakly flicker to life all the way down the hall. “Ah! The day breaks!” says the technician. It’s a perfect moment.
- Terry Gilliam has clearly seen this movie more than once. There’s a shot of Von Braun, the technician, barking orders at lackeys as they walk down a corridor that shows up in Brazil, and when Lemmy is interrogated by Alpha 60, the microphones that keep moving around his head seem to be the inspiration for the television screens in Twelve Monkeys.
- You know that thing in science fiction movies where you realize that the writer doesn’t really know much about science? Yeah, this movie’s got that. Somebody says “150 light years ago,” which is nails on a blackboard for me. There’s actually one bad science line that I loved: “We took the tangent to the center districts.” That’s not even bad science; it’s bad geometry.
- Here’s how you know you’re in a noir: Lemmy has one of these “Seductress, Third Class” women sit on a chair in his hotel room. He has her hold a magazine over her head, open to a centerfold. He takes her picture. Then he lays down on his bed and starts reading a copy of Le Grand Sommeil (Chandler in translation); and suddenly, without looking up from his book, shoots a bullet through each of the pinup’s breasts with a pistol. Note that there’s nothing to motivate him to do this; I guess he just likes shooting up centerfolds.
- Anna Karina, who plays Natasha, was Godard's wife during the time the movie was made. Here she is:
- She kind of makes me want to give up writing and become a director. Preferably famous, and French, and in the 60s.
- I think one of Tereza’s nightmares in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the book—I haven’t seen the movie yet) is pretty similar to the execution scenes in this movie; I wonder if Kundera got the idea from Godard.
One thing I’ve been learning from watching these movies is that a lot of things that I thought were original ideas in movies I’ve liked were in fact done earlier, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but earlier. I thought I was really on the verge of something big, until I read this:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
Turns out some jerkoff stole my big idea two thousand years ago.