Alphaville [1965]

Do you know what illuminates the night? Poetry.


Alphaville is a 1965 new wave, science fiction, neo noir film which was directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Despite the film having themes of dystopia, it was filmed with no special props or futuristic CGI and you can really feel that. There’s something about it that teeters sometimes between dated and timeless. I can’t put a finger on why, but I suspect the lack of CGI has something to do with it.

So, the protagonist of the film is Lemmy Caution, a secret agent. He’s travelling to a city known as Alphaville posing as a a journalist. He’s trying to find the missing agent, Henri Dixon, and later his objectives change as he tries to capture/kill the creator of Alphaville and destroy the computer than runs the city (called Alpha 60). The main premise of the film is that the city has outlawed free thought, poetry, emotions and love. It is not altogether clear how utopic this doctrine has made the city compared to the outer lands. With a lot of later ‘utopic’ themed films, it is immediately obvious how ruling out such things creates unity in its people… because people seem calm, or their cities are prestine looking, there’s no crime (supposedly) and so on. All of this is important to represent why these things had to be outlawed. However, it wasn’t entirely clear watching this film if the absence of these things actually improve peoples lives. I mean, part of that is probably due to the film being neo noir; the city seems quite grimey. The only real taste that you get of peoples lives being improved is in the shots where Lemmy is in the hotel he is staying at, which is serviced by (I want to say) androids but then it calls into question if peoples lives are really improved, or if it is just men as it comes off quite objectifying to women. Really reminds me of scenes of Soylent Green.

Anyway… back to the premise! People who show any signs of emotion are considered to be acting illogically and are executed through drowning. It seems like this is a sort of sport in this city, as it is observed by a bunch of well-to-do men from a balcony… none of whom seem to flinch at the sight of this.. On his journey, Lemmy meets Natacha von Braun (a programmer of the Alpha 60) who helps him to overthrow the machine. In the process he falls in love with her and apparently the love that he has for her “introduces emotion and unpredictability into the city”. There’s a scene (I watched this some time ago so I might be thinking of the wrong woman, but I think this is the one I am thinking of) where Lemmy is being accosted and von Braun sees this and she sheds a single tear and someone asks her if she is crying and she’s like NO I’M NOT BECAUSE I’M NOT ALLOWED TO BE… At the time I was thinking she has a lot of feels for him, and she’s not hiding this very well.. Anyways more on that later. So they manage to destroy the machine by telling it a riddle it cannot understand and Lemmy sweeps von Braun off her feet and drives her out of the city. The last scene is of them driving into the sunset.

So, I found this film very strange. I know it has a cult following, and is regarded very highly and I think that has something to do with it being before its time with this concept. It was probably one of the first films that looked at dystopic/utopic cities. Most of the better-put-together films of that genre, in my mind, come a bit later from the 70s onards; so this film probably had a great legacy. However, there were in my mind a lot of moments which felt dated or too over-the-top, but I guess it first came out nearly 60 years ago so I can’t be too hard on it…

Firstly, the scene I mentioned above where von Braun is hiding her true emotion was so transparent, and was done in front of the enforcers of this city so it didn’t seem realistic that she would not be found out… Like if people are living in fear of being emotional or letting on that they are reading poetry or any literature, the way that they would be acting would be very subtle, or they would be displaying real fear at the idea of being caught (or perhaps even excitement… none of which can be seen in this film). Quite probably this film is influenced by George Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949) and the way the protagonist acted in that book when he thought that he was being watched was very different to how he acted when he wasn’t, because his life was at stake if he didn’t. I didn’t feel that from these characters in Alphaville, despite the very real and very violent threat of execution.

There are several shots throughout the film which flash up E=mc2 and other equations. Supposedly they are shown to display the scientism that underpins Alphaville, but it seems like a strange way of illustrating that.

Overall, I thought the way Lemmy interacted with women was very dated, and I think this is something that a lot of science fiction films of that sort of era (pre-1980s) struggle with. That even though the film is set in a futuristic time, the writer/author is stuck in a mindset that is very old-fashioned and you can see that in the work. It therefore came off as quite dated.

So all in all, I really struggled to take this film seriously, or suspend my disbelief that this was a real thing that was happening. I have seen quite a few films of this topic before I came round to this one. Perhaps if I had seen this earlier, I might have a different perspective. I can certainly see how influential a film it has been. Enjoyed the neo-noir shots. Personally disliked the characters but I put that down to the dated interactions between the protagonist and the women in the film. Overall enjoyed watching a slice of history, but not one of my faves of the genre.

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