“That’s always how it is. You never understand anything and, in the end, it kills you.”
As a simple rule of thumb — a heuristic if you will — you can learn much about a person based on what camp they fall into when it comes to the Nouvelle Vague. For simplicity’s sake, let’s suggests we have Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and “Other” (We’ll unfairly stuff Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, The Left Bank, and all the rest here).
Many probably wouldn’t need this scenario. All it takes is a one-word, guttural response: “Godard” or “Truffaut” For me, it’s Truffaut. It’s as if the wavelength he operates on so often connects with me. Whereas with Godard it’s always more a matter of admiration for his prolific creative powers and the intellect buried in each of his projects. I appreciate him from an analytical distance.
From the outset, Alphaville epitomizes the dichotomy of Godard: both the brilliance and what can make him utterly maddening at times. He’s the perpetual visionary iconoclast and artistic maverick like few others before or after (and he’s still at it!).
We’re met with a blinking light, like an interrogation lamp, shining down on the audience. The opening voiceover relates, “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by spoken word. Legend remolds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.” This is our introduction to the computerized brain and technological chimera: Alpha 60.
Godard’s protagonist functions a bit like a world-wearied Buster Keaton in his later years. Lines covering his stone face are perfect for suggesting that he’s seen the world. This alone makes him sufficient, but expatriate Eddy Considine was also known in France for his long connection with the serialized crime detective Lemmy Caution. Here he is tasked with missions, but as should be expected with noir storytelling, each successive leg feels more befuddling than the last.
Godard took Caution to the extreme, totally untethered out in his devised limbo of clunky Parisian sci-fi. It’s the profundity of taking the labels of the future (my labels, not his) and making them feel mundane, like the contemporary moment. Still, it’s hardly a stretch to call Alphaville a forerunner to HAL, Blade Runner, or even Altman’s Long Goodbye, a film where you have a dissonance between worlds and time frames.
There is one moment when the all-knowing voice says something to the effect that there is never the past or the future. There is only the present — where we can exist right now. So, really, there is not an issue of incongruity because everything we see is accepted as it is, functioning in this landscape as one.
Godard, working with his famed collaborator Raoul Coutard, initially doesn’t even bother with chiaroscuro, but instead an utterly binary palette. Horizontal slats of darkness above strips of light or vice versa. A cigarette and gun in Caution’s hand are both visible, while his entire face is literally pitch black.
Getting to Alphaville and a hotel in the heart of this metropolis is a trip. The lobby feels conventional enough. This is a mere extension of the Parisian landscape. And yet he gets led to his room by a lady who looks suspiciously like a lady of a night (especially when her clothes start coming off), and Godard adds another lovely non-sequitur when a thug all of the sudden materializes in the bathroom leading to a stylized struggle.
Our tough guy runs for his gun on the bed and shots ring out through the room. He makes the agitated but lucid observation moments later, “Everything weird is normal” in this town. He’s never been more correct.
We get a suggestion of what Godard is playing with — the conventions and ideas he wants to tinker around with — as both an artistic and intellectual exercise. Beatrice, the first of several femme fatales, we find out, is a level-three seductress. It’s all too apparent the misogynism has not evaporated in this alternate world.
Anna Karina appears next as the daughter of a high-ranking official with intimate knowledge of Alpha 60. Caution christens her a “pretty sphinx,” and she is an unsuspecting product of the disconcerting sci-fi dystopia that has overtaken society. Ironically, it comes packaged a lot like Paris in the 1960s run by capitalists.
As far as gadgets go, Caution employs a portable lighter-intercom slightly less ostentatious than Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. There are government-sanctioned executions for those showing sentimentality, where the festivities are made into a bit of a water aerobics showcase. Another popular form of entertainment is theater executions — the electric chair in more diverting circumstances.
Logic is law. Tears and love are among those things outlawed. No one comprehends what “conscience” means anymore. I even made the initial assumption the books in the hotel rooms were Gideon Bibles. However, it turns out, “The Bible” is not theological but linguistic, in the form of a dictionary, as delivered by Jean-Pierre Leaud in a blink of a cameo. When words get eradicated from the cultural lexicon new editions are published and disseminated to the public.
As the tenets of society get more and more perplexing, Caution’s mission begins to spiral into chaos, toward the final destruction of the mechanical beast. Godard chops up cinematic reality with disruptive negative images that do feel otherworldly. There are car chases, murders, and corpses of those asphyxiated splayed on the floor. It seems Alphaville really is crumbling from the inside out.
The movie itself is full of these deconstructions, clever amalgams of Godard’s cultural proclivities, and his own personal wizardry. But if we are to fall back on my totally unessential litmus test, he rarely touches me to the degree Truffaut is capable of. There’s never the same laughter or warmth emanating from his characters.
Yes, in Breathless (1960) and Vivre sa Vie (1962) they come the closest and there are extended periods that speak to me, momentarily touching my heart and my soul, if I can be so transparent. But at a certain point, they end because Godard is not in the business of humanity as much as he is in the business of the mechanisms of cinema itself. He is the great artist. Truffaut the great humanist. In turn, each affinity made them into two of the most passionate filmmakers the world has ever known.
Both very avid, opinionated, obsessive cineastes. It even drove a wedge between them in later years after their catalytic collaborations in the early 60s. It’s not all that unsurprising. Arguably their most similar films conceptually, are vastly different in both vision and execution.
Consider Contempt (1963) and Day for Night (1973) or even Shoot The Piano Player (1961) and Alphaville (1965). The first pair act as two entirely singular odes to the art of filmmaking. The latter two are indebted to the glories of film noir and other cheap genre fare.
But again, it feels like Truffaut is far more capable of humanity. You never get the same sense of transparency from Godard. There is even a feeling he relishes his status as this cryptic figure — a reputation, I might add, he has maintained for most of his career.
And yet even Godard, with all his enigmatic stylings, can continually surprise me like so many others. This is his ability to morph with the times and take on new forms like a Bob Dylan — to make a flawed musical comparison. For me, it was the final line of his movie — all but forcing me to eat my words — forcing me to feel empathy.
Natascha remembers how to say “I love you” as they drive away from the hysteria of Alphaville back to the Outer Countries. For Godard, this is a heady statement, the height of sentimentality even. It’s unexpected but fitting, his constant muse throughout the 60s, Anna Karina, emblematic of his most fertile creative period, it’s her words that ultimately define Alphaville. I love you. Maybe Godard is a humanist after all. At the very least, Karina in all her affection helps to humanize him.
Note: Since writing this piece, Anna Karina passed away on December 14th, 2019. R.I.P. to a legend.