Alphaville

Jean Luc Godard’s 1965 film, Alphaville, is a mixture of film noir, science fiction, and surrealist fantasy. At some time in the future, Lemmie Caution (Eddie Constantine) is sent as a secret agent to a city called Alphaville. Although Alphaville is located on another planet, Caution is able to drive there in his Ford Mustang (identified as a “Galaxie” in the film). Caution’s mission is to find a man named Leonard Nosferatu (Howard Vernon) and bring him back to Caution’s home planet. This task turns out to be harder than Caution anticipated, for it turns out that Nosferatu, who has changed his name to Prof. Von Braun, has taken over Alphaville, which he runs using a super computer called Alph 60. Von Braun has outlawed emotions such as love, as well as art and poetry. The government is continually eliminating words from the language, so it has to continually issue new dictionaries without the proscribed words. Von Braun believes that he is making the people of Alphaville into a “superior race”, who will be able to conquer the universe. Caution meets, and falls in love with, Von Braun’s daughter, Natacha (Anna Karina). She ends up risking her life to help him.

Alphaville is Godard’s protest against what he sees as the coldness and cultural vacuity of modern life. It is also an attack on totalitarianism. (These three things are apparently interrelated in Godards’s view.) The talk of a “superior race” is clearly meant to remind us of Hitler. The outlawing of words is meant to remind us of Stalin. (It’s also similar to Orwell’s notion of “newspeak”.) Von Braun is obviously named after Wernher Von Braun, the engineer who designed rockets first for the Nazis and then for the United States. He was seen by many people as the epitome of the amoral technocrat. For Godard, such a person acts an enabler for the political and social forces that are destroying our world.

My one criticism of this film is a lack of continuity in the character of Caution. In some scenes, he behaves like a cold-blooded killer, as well as a bit of a misogynist. Yet in other scenes, he talks about the power of love and of poetry. This inconsistency may due to the fact that the film was largely improvised.

Alphaville is prescient in some ways. Randianism, which calls for a world of self-interest without human connections, is becoming the unofficial philosophy of the U.S. ruling class. Welcome to Alphaville.

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