I have a very troubled relationship with the films of Jean-Luc Godard. I always admire them, but I can’t recall a single one I’ve enjoyed sitting through. This one was a particular case—I was into it more than any of his other movies, due to all the sci-fi concepts and exciting technique, but as a strange side effect to its extreme headiness and abstract sci-fi vibe, it never failed to send me to sleep. And not just any sleep, but that kind of deep drugged torpor where you feel like the couch has a gravitational field 70 times that of anything else in the apartment. Because of this, I watched the movie in three installments. It never failed to put me into this stupor, and it ended up taking me over a month to get through the entire thing.
Okay, so this is Godard’s science-fiction film from 1965. It begins with a flashing light, then a still photograph of a street with a large painting hanging above. Our man character, Lemmy Caution, who is a sort of gloss on Noir pulp detectives and Dick Tracy, enters the city of Alphaville. From the start you can tell that the film will make no attempt to be futuristic in terms of sets or clothes, but will convey its futurism via very abstract filmmaking technique, disjointed dialogue and character concepts.
For example, Lemmy is shown to his hotel room by a woman you assume is a hostess. But no, she is his state-issued prostitute, a “Seductress, First Class,” whose presence he cannot refuse. She, and everyone he meets, advises him to register with Residents Control as soon as possible. He tries to get rid of his prostitute—and another one shows up almost immediately. Upon telling one of these women to piss off and take it elsewhere, they invariably respond “I’m very well, thank you so very much.”
The bulk of the movie is an extended noir quest for Lemmy to find and kill Professor Von Braun, a bigwig in Alphaville’s government. But the real function of this quest is to lead us around Alphaville, showing us its many different aspects and introducing several of its sci-fi concepts. The entire city is under the mind control of this supercomputer, the A60. Many people comment that “One can’t adapt to this place.” No one understands the meaning of words such as “Why” or “When.” At one point Lemmy witnesses an execution ceremony of people who are condemned for acting illogically; one of them is executed for crying when his wife died. The men stand on a large pool’s diving board, are shot and fall in, then about four female models jump in the pool to remove the body and perform a few water acrobatics. He is soon given a personality test by the A60. This is a good example of how the movie conveys its futurism via technique: as Lemmy answers the questions, microphones hang near his head. They are normal 1965 microphones, but they move in and out of frame in a way that is odd and mechanical, conveying some yet-to-be-developed technology.
The technique, by the way, is pretty marvelous. There are a number of long tracking shots, including a few in elevators. One of the standouts, toward the end, has Caution grab the professor and throw him into an elevator. In one shot we go all the way up with them, then at the top the door opens, as does the door of the opposite elevator, revealing the professor's bodyguards. They come across, pull the professor out, come in, and beat Lemmy as the car goes back down. The act of beating him is portrayed by them just tossing him back and forth to each other—I really love simple, inexpensive yet effective touches like that. There is also a wonderful long tracking shot toward the end as Natacha stumbles through a building lobby, and a stunning one in the middle as a woman walks around an entire room, all of it blackened out except for what she captures with her flashlight. Then she suddenly turns the light on, and we track around the room again.
One of the ways the A60 controls everyone is by removing any words that convey emotion or cannot be conveyed by factual emotion. There was a moment I was really into when Natacha is in the process of looking up the word "conscience" in a dictionary, when the computer determines that it must be eliminated. All of a sudden a guy opens the door, pulls the book out of her hand and replaces it with another one. Natacha doesn't notice this, she just says that she can't find the word in the dictionary.
SPOILERS > > >
In the final third of the movie, Natacha and Lemmy realize that they are in love. This of course is all new to Natacha and she isn't quite sure what it all means or how to handle it. Lemmy defeats the computer with a poem, which confounds it by not making logical sense. Suddenly all the population of Alphaville [including Natacha] is staggering around, their mind control from the computer gone. Lemmy leads her toward his car, reeling, but she sobers up momentarily when he tells her to think of the word "love." He gets her in the car, drives out and tells her not to look back. As they get further away, she realizes, and says, that she loves him, expressing how she is slowly coming to an understanding of herself as an individual and allowing herself to embrace illogical concepts.
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Tired as the some of the sci-fi ideas are now [45 years later], I didn't mind their obviousness and tendentiousness [only poetry can defeat the logic of the machine, etc.]. I was especially surprised to completely buy into and be moved by the ending. I don't know, I just bought the conceit and found the couple's drive to escape the influence of the computer and recover their individuality moving—more so than with other Godard films, which I usually admire technically while remaining completely cold to the story.
This movie was also terribly influential, and the more you think about any particular aspect, it's not long before you think of a more recent sci-fi flick that uses some of it. Lemmy's personality test by the computer and his escorting Natacha out of the city both echo aspects of Blade Runner, the computer that controls a city, and a place where emotion is outlawed has become such a cliché it is common from less well-respected movies like Logan's Run, Equilibrium and Aeon Flux. The all-powerful computer from 2001. Etc.
Anyway, a very interesting sci-fi film that is still very much a Godard film, and very much worth watching—though perhaps not as immediately enjoyable as something in which a giant octopus attacks a small town.
Yes, at some point in your life, I suppose you should.