Iconic and iconoclastic French New Wave standard-bearer Jean-Luc Godard is one of the biggest names in cinema history and may be our greatest living filmmaker. His oeuvre is forbiddingly vast, and the highlights of his sprawling later phases—including the avant-agit-prop films of his late ‘60s and early ‘70s Marxist period and the cerebral yet irreverent experimentation he’s been engaged in since the 1980s—remain largely unavailable for most viewers. Yet Godard’s canonical early era, beginning with 1960’s Breathless (one of three films that are simultaneously credited with kicking off the French New Wave) and culminating with 1967’s Weekend, is more than enough for most viewers to grasp the gestalt of the director’s flawed but radical genius. This astonishing run crystallizes virtually all of his aesthetic concerns, and even today, these films flicker with the residual frisson of a cinematic revolution.
Directors: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Éluard
Producers: André Michelin
Cinematographer: Raoul Coutard
Editor: Agnès Guillemot
Music: Paul Misraki
Cast: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff
Premiere: March 5, 1965 – France
US Theatrical Release: October 25, 1965
US Distributor: Rialto Pictures
1965’s Alphaville, perhaps the rawest and most enigmatic artifact of Godard’s golden age, finds the director struggling toward a political and philosophical gravitas and manic inventiveness that the film never inhabits quite as fully or convincingly as the masterful works that would follow (especially Pierrot Le Fou and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her). Still, Alphaville is a compelling creation thanks largely to its loving yet subversive relationship to the legacy of pulp genres like noir and sci-fi and its commitment to wringing an inventive and novel vision out of aesthetic minimalism.
Godard and comrades like Francois Trauffaut and Jacques Rivette famously spent their 1950s pre-New Wave years writing film criticism for Andre Bazin’s legendary journal Cahiers du Cinema, where they exulted Hollywood auteurs whose genius they felt was not taken seriously by the prevailing cinematic establishment, among them Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Aldrich, and Nicholas Ray. Throughout his career, Godard alluded to the American genre films that he adored in his youth, but nowhere more explicitly than in Alphaville, which transplants a classic noir detective narrative into a sci-fi dystopia dripping with Kafkaesque atmosphere.
The core of this clever juxtaposition is Godard’s use of the character of Lemmy Caution. The hard-boiled Caution, sometimes an FBI agent and sometimes a private eye, predates Alphaville by nearly three decades, first appearing in British writer Peter Cheyney’s novels of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and then in a series of French films beginning in 1953. American expat Eddie Constantine was the only actor ever to play the character in film, and he’s terrific in the role, perfecting a sort of bold yet clumsy grit. By moving Caution from his standard present-day setting into a futuristic and starkly existential labyrinth, Godard wisely teases out the drama and charisma of Constantine’s brilliant performance, yielding a disconnected strangeness that sets the film’s off-kilter tone from the get-go.
The film follows Caution, a secret agent in this incarnation, as he arrives in the city of Alphaville from a surrounding area known as the Outlands. Masquerading as a newspaper reporter, Caution is on a mission to capture and kill the mysterious Professor von Braun, creator of a dictatorial computer known as Alpha 60 that controls the denizens of Alphaville by forbidding the use of certain words and the public expression of emotions. Naturally, it isn’t long before Caution falls in love with von Braun’s daughter, Natacha, played by Godard’s then-wife and muse Anna Karina.
Alphaville was shot exclusively in available locations around Paris, and includes virtually nothing that could, then or now, be called a “special effect.” This bare-bones approach yields impressive results, and the hauntingly affectless world of Alphaville steadily comes to life as the film unfolds. Here, substantial credit is due to frequent Godard collaborator Raoul Coutard and his wondrous black-and-white cinematography, which transfigures ‘60s Paris’ slick modern architecture and staid corporate interiors into uncanny dioramas of political and psychic control.
Yet in order to achieve this unique vision from such ascetic means, the film’s editing has to do most of the heavy lifting to make the film’s narrative cohere—no small task, given that Godard, in an approach typical to his films of this era, had the cast improvise many of the scenes from a rough outline. In the end, Constantine’s magnetic presence is the only memorable vestige of the film’s story, which never quite catches up to the weirdness of its setting. The film’s denouement, in which Natasha steps definitively towards her own liberation from Alphaville by intoning the once-forbidden phrase “I love you,” is especially flat and disappointing. The most charitable reading would chalk this scene up to even more genre homage, but even so, it lacks the smart and stylish undertow of the rest of the film. Nonetheless, Alphaville is an interesting chapter in the staggering aesthetic evolution of Godard’s maverick years, maneuvering the playfulness of his earliest features towards headier breakthroughs soon to follow.