vampire by vampire
music friday: etta james, “i'd rather go blind”

by request: alphaville (jean-luc godard, 1965)

This request came in the comments section of my post about Fahrenheit 451, another science-fiction film by a French New Wave director. The truth is, the two films have little in common, but the differences are instructive.

Truffaut made a “real” science-fiction movie, while Godard seemed mostly uninterested in that aspect. Both films offer warnings about present-day life by showing possible dystopian futures, but where Truffaut creates a visual future by adding things like big-screen interactive televisions and fire trucks that spew fire instead of water, Godard just photographs contemporary Paris in ways that make for an unsettling blend of the recognizable and the unusual. In many ways, the lovely colors of Fahrenheit 451 look more like the 1960s present than does the black-and-white beauty of Alphaville.

Truffaut made a fairly straight-forward movie, drawing on Ray Bradbury’s novel, telling an understandable narrative, making a simple point (reading is essential), and finishing off with the image of people wandering around, quoting from books they had memorized. Godard never made a straight-forward movie in his life, the narrative is jumbled, there is no single point but instead a philosophical mélange out of Jorge Luis Borges, and the ending relies on people rediscovering the power of words rather than books (an important difference).

In Alphaville, the central computer that controls everything applies logic to emotion, and rules the latter to be inefficient. If you show emotion, you are executed, and the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms has been replaced by a dictionary that constantly changes, as certain words are eliminated.

At the end, when Anna Karina’s Natacha von Braun wants hero Lemmy Caution to save her, he demurs:

Natacha: I don't know what to say. They're words I don't know. I wasn't taught them. Help me.
Caution: Impossible. Help yourself; then you will be saved. If you don't, you're as lost as the dead of Alphaville.

In Fahrenheit 451, humanity is saved when people memorize the words of others. In Alphaville, salvation arrives only when each person comes up with the words that will save them.

There is a lot to like about Alphaville. The idea of placing Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) at the center of the film is goofy in itself (Caution was the central character in more than half-a-dozen popular French detective films based on British novels), and it’s certain that Lemmy fans had never seen their hero as he appears in this movie. Godard has his usual little in-jokes; many can be seen in the names of the various characters (Professor Leonard von Braun, aka Professor Nosferatu, assistant professors Heckell and Jeckell). The person who plays Heckell was from the Cahiers du Cinéma. Jean-Pierre Léaud makes a cameo appearance, and Borges is quoted throughout.

Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard do brilliant work with no money to create a believable, atmospheric “future”. Eddie Constantine shows the kind of depth that wasn’t often required of him. And even though Anna Karina’s character is supposed to be disaffected, Godard can’t help making the love of his life sparkle.

Despite all of the above, Alphaville is a lesser film from Godard’s prime era, about as good as Contempt, but nowhere near the classics (take your pick … off the top of my head, I can think of half-a-dozen I prefer). #543 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

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