By Chermaine Goh
Alphaville by Jean Luc Godard (1965) is film that combines elements of dystopia science fiction and film noir. It is about main character Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) who makes his way into Alphaville to look for a missing agent and the creator of Alphavile.
It is a movie filled with mystery right from the start; the scene opens with voice-over with a man’s identity disguised. Godard loves to pan 180 degrees across a room to give the audience a sense of the human view. On top of that, Alphaville occasionally shows the surroundings of outside of where the characters are to input the image of into the audience mind.
One might expect that there would be lots of computer-generated effects used considering the genres in this film. However, Godard defied all expectations all by having no special effects at all, resulting in ‘a fable on a realistic ground’ as Godard once said personally. (Richard William, The Guardian) With a small budget and minimal sets, Godard managed to successfully produce a film which is relatable even in this day and age.
For this film, Godard departed from his usual style of directing. Instead of retaining his minimalist style (Breathless, Vivre savie), Godard experimented with different kinds of shots and angles for Alphaville. One particularly notable scene was the opening section of a scene where Caution checks in and walking to the lift and then to his hotel room. This unedited scene is 4 minutes long and required many attempts to successfully shoot since the lifts were old and difficult to coordinate.
There are many cutaways and panning shots in this film and the story progresses quickly as scenes move smoothly from one scene to another. Richard Williams stated “all the elements combine beautifully” as the black and white photography convincingly turns everyday objects and settings into a ‘dystopian futureworld’.
The science fiction feel is also further elevated by the sound treatment given to this film. As Joseph Pellegrino points out, “he distorts his soundtrack, at one point cutting out the dialogue, complete silence for several seconds, and then returns with a voiceover (Joseph Pellengrino, Realmofcinema). Godard’s unconventional approach with the soundtrack serves to make the film more intriguing and every other moment is unexpected and it is almost impossible to tear your eyes off the screen.
Although the film may seem complicated, it has one very simple, main theme overall, which is Love. Love was what enabled Caution to stay focused throughout the film and was also what enabled him, along with Natasha to escape from Alphaville in the end. It shows how powerful love is. Without love, one simply cannot survive.
Other Gordard trademark styles are still eminent in the film, though. First, it is his affection of adding in references from real works. As Nick Burton said, “Alphaville teems with an eccentric mix of high and low culture – from references to Louis Ferdinand Celine, Dick Tracy, and Heckl and Jeckl, to dialectics and philosophy mixed with science fiction.” (Nick Burton, pif magazine). Nick Burton also mentions that this element makes the film more complicated then it really is. I agree with him, though I also find that by adding references from real life published works, it adds a touch of realism to the film; it somehow makes the film more believable and relatable because we know that not everything is made up.
Godard also made use of noises and sounds to symbolise certain actions and meetings. For example, he expressed the computer control by illustrating through the rasping-gurgling sounds of a man who has lost his voice box. This is a excellent expression to show technological totalitarianism as it could certainly have come up with a more beguiling tone with which to seduce its subjects.
Also present in the film is Godard’s subtle hints of politics. It has been wildly speculated that this film is a dig towards America, which is thought to be shown through the ‘system gone awry where the people no longer have any free will and the so-called logic of the system makes all the decisions’. (Derek Smith, Cinematic Reflections)Critic Derek Smith makes good sense saying that it really “represents a way of thought where those in power rule through a system of control.”
Jean Couteau was one of Godard’s main influences, and similarities between Alpahaville and Couteau’s 1950 film Orpheus is evident. For example, “Orphée’s search for Cégeste and Caution’s for Harry 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.” (Godard 1986, pg 277). Another significant influence was George Orwell’s 1984(1949), whose book was about an individual giving up all his power to the government.
Regardless of his influences, Gordard also manages to make Alphaville his very own, as he manages to depict successfully what a nightmare it is to live in Alphaville. Who could forget the scenes where people are executed due to showing emotion while the audience look on calmly, and the city signs that reads ‘Science. Logic. Security. Prudence.’? The so called ‘bible’, which in fact is a dictionary that is updated every single day where words such as ‘love’ and ‘poetry’ are striked off daily? These scenes are well depicted and make a deep impact and it is through Godard’s own efforts that Alphaville turned up in this very believable way.
During the interrogation scene, light was shone on the detective only when he talks. Therefore, it makes the audience focus completely on the other person’s voice completely. Godard is doing that probably to keep the person’s identity a mystery which brings me back to the opening scene. Godard ensured that there was similarity throughout his movie. That way, the audience would be able to remember his film very distinctively when they leave the theaters.
Godard rightfully earned the prestige of being considered part of the French New Wave directors. During the era where statements of individual creativity were almost completely lacking, (Derek Smith, cinematic reflections), Godard successfully managed to produce a film that is often considered one of the most influential films along with films such as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
Love or hate this film, it has influenced several other directors who went on to produce works with similar themes such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Besides influencing directors, this film also made an impact toward many other causes. In the world of music culture, German band Alphaville chose their name from this film. Alphaville then went on to inspire the music videos behind The Cranberries “Linger” and Kelly Osbourne’s “One world”. It also inspired the creation of UK festival Alpha-ville, and the name of film production company Alphaville Pictures.
About The Author: Chermaine is a sleep-deprived film and writing student studying in Singapore Polytechnic. When she isn’t working on her never-ending assignments, she will most likely be found catching up on movies and books. She suffers from severe wanderlust.
1. Derek Smith. “Alphaville”. Cinematic Reflections. 10 May 2003. Web. 21 June 2013. <http://www.cinematicreflections.com/alphaville.html>
2. Bosley Crowther. “Screen:’Alphaville,’ Festival Picture, at the Paris, Godard’s film spoiled by shifting its gears. The New York Times. 26 October 1965. 21 June 2013. <http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D03E6D91F30E23ABC4E51DFB667838E679EDE>
3. Nick Burton. “Alphaville 1965”. Pif Magazine. 1 April 1999. 21 June 2013. <http://www.pifmagazine.com/1999/04/alphaville-1965/>
4. Joseph Pellegrino. “Alphaville”. Realm Of Cinema. 26 April 2011. web. 21 June 2013. <http://realmofcinema.blogspot.sg/2011/04/alphaville-1965-etrange-aventure-de.html>
5. Richard Williams. “My Favorite Film”. The Guardian. 28 December 2011. web. 21 June 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2011/dec/28/my-favourite-film-alphaville-godard>
6. Allan Fish. “Alphaville-1965, Jean Luc Gordard. Wonders In The Dark. 14 June 2013. web. 21 June 2013. <http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/alphaville-1965-jean-luc-godard/>
7. “Alphaville(Film). Wikipedia. 14 June 2013. web. 21 June 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphaville_(film)>