Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
"[Poetry is] the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself." - William Hazlitt
In post-war France, the French were fascinated with American culture and American heroes. Author Peter Cheyney’s novels about Detective/Secret Agent Lemmy Caution were very popular in France and French film companies had made seven film adaptations with actor Eddie Constantine portraying the character in each of them. Constantine was contracted to work with Godard on a project and Godard was still deciding on the project. Godard at the time wanted to make an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”, though that project did not move forward. When Godard was finally inspired to write Alphaville, he decided that he wanted Constantine to reprise the role of Lemmy Caution, though in a different depiction as a weary man in his twilight. Godard emphasized this by preventing the actor from wearing makeup to display the wrinkles and blemishes on his face, particularly a prominent scar that had always been covered up when he played the character. “Godard’s subversion of the Caution stereotype shattered Constantine’s connection with the character.” (1) Godard used this change to the character to illustrate his film’s themes of social tension and incipient fascism by demolishing the character’s traditional image. Godard used Caution as a liberator from ordered thinking, from ideology.
Shortly before filming, Godard and his wife Anna Karina got divorced, though Godard still loved Karina and she was still signed on to the film. Godard wrote her character as a resident of Alphaville: having no understanding of love, and Caution would teach her character the meaning of love. Perhaps Godard hoped this realization by proxy would lead to reconciliation between him and his ex-wife. This meta-love story between director and actress adds a layer of romance as Godard is still pursuing and fighting for his wife, even after they’re no longer together.
Godard’s New Wave contemporaries also showed interest in science fiction as both Chris Marker made “La Jetee” and François Truffaut made an adaptation of "Fahrenheit 451". Alphaville would be Godard’s 9th feature film, which he described as "a fable on a realistic ground". Godard wanted to critique present day France and how he thought society would progress in the future. Rather than using the futuristic props and sets common to Sci-Fi films, the film was shot on location in Paris at night without additional lighting, using France’s recently constructed futuristic architecture. Godard was expressing a bitterness for the future of France, as well as for mankind, critiquing the dehumanization of individuals and the rise of global technology, which were relevant concerns for France at the time. Setting the film in the present-day Paris limited audience’s ability to “escape” and dared them to see the realities of the film in their everyday life. This all personified Godard's serious thesis: we're already living in Alphaville.
Alphaville is an authoritarian dystopia, where the residents have had their emotions repressed by the artificial intelligence Alpha60, created by Professor Von Braun (who’s name is an allusion to the president of France in 1965, De Gaulle, who Godard and other new wave auteurs often criticized). Alpha60 publicly executes citizens who behave "illogically" through displaying emotions or disagreeing with the system. Alpha60 has eradicated the creation of art, the citizens are entranced with apathy and dispassion and no one understands the meaning of “love” or "conscience." Love has been replaced by casual sexual encounters with “seductresses,” giving visitors sexual release without the enjoyment of true love. It is stated that Swedes, Germans, and Americans best assimilate to Alphaville, inferring that Europeans are too emotional. The emotional repression of Alphaville’s residents distracts them from beauty and meaning.
The world of Alphaville is particularly reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 (even explicitly set in the same year) where the society is ruled by the totalitarian watchful eye of BigBrother and forced to use NewSpeak: a language used to limit the freedom of thought for the citizens.
This Orwellian society which is dominated by the tyrannical computer doesn’t rely on man to progress and work, and occupies the citizens with mundane pleasures. This vision of a technology that has enslaved man resembles “H.A.L. 9000” in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) however unlike Kubrick, Godard isn’t interested in cybernetics nor futurology at all. Nor is Godard interested in the relation between man and nature, like Tarkovsky. When Godard makes a fictional film, he is strictly using the fiction to critique the present.
The film opens with a quote from Borges: “sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication. But legend embodies it in a form which enables it to spread all over the world.” Alpha60 points to logic but still recites the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges. Borges denied a narrative view of time, arguing instead that temporality is a series of instants, which Alpha60 uses to assert a circle of past and present. The ideas from which the computerized behemoth formed its philosophy are, in many ways, as inexplicable as the control the computer holds over the citizens' wills or the reasons the future looks like Paris in 1965. Godard, like Alpha60, relies on the fact that people will accept the aesthetic and teachings of Alphaville without skepticism. Alpha60 is both the servant of VonBraun and the arbiter of the cause and effect in Alphaville.
Caution travels from the “outlands” to Alphaville, checking in at a hotel under the alias “Ivan Johnson”, a newspaper reporter. Each hotel room is accompanied with a jukebox, Bible and seductive bathing assistant. Caution is truly a stranger in a strange land, apparent to the residents of Alphaville through his failure to adhere to their customs, such as his affirmations of “yes I’m fine, don’t mention it” at the end of each conversation. Caution intends to convince the professor VonBraun to return to the “outer planets”, to return to exploration (to creativity and creation), otherwise he has been sent to capture or kill Von Braun and destroy Alpha60. Caution is not limited to the moment of tyrannical oppression as the city’s permanent residents. He constantly takes pictures with his camera, an act completely foreign to Alphaville, where the residents do not think of the past or the future and only know words that are deemed logical by Alpha60. In Alphaville, time is viewed in a circular motion, represented by visual motifs. Alpha60 states that “time is like a circle, which turns endlessly”. This habitual cycle is seen through the residents who talk in circles, never questioning their actions.
When Caution meets Von Braun’s daughter, Natacha, he resolves to rescue her from the city and escort her safely to the Outlands. Caution introduces her to the concepts of "conscience" and "love" and gives her a copy of poet Paul Eluard's Capital of Pain, which she does not comprehend.. "Nearly every day, words disappear because they are forbidden," Natacha tells him. "They are replaced by new words expressing new ideas."
Caution asks to be introduced to the evil professor, which, although she has never met her own father, agrees to arrange if she can. Van Braun, himself, offers Caution (pretending to Ivan Johnson) a chance to join the community, suggesting he might even rule a galaxy (perhaps drawing a parallel to the devil’s temptation of Jesus).
Caution destroys Alpha60 through a riddle: “something which never changes, day or night. The past represents its future. It advances in a straight line. Yet it ends by coming full circle.” Alpha60 asks Caution “what turns darkness into light?” to which Caution answers: “Poetry.” This is not something Alpha60 could understand and this sent everyone in Alphaville by proxy reverts into a catatonic state of disarray. When the technology dies, the whole world dies because technology is the new god.
Moments later, the physical film is reversed, turning darkness into light, depicting Cautions reversal of Alphaville: what was previously black is now white. Poetry turns darkness into light, and in the end, only those who love survive. As Caution destroyed Alpha60 and makes his way out of the city, Godard reverses the physical film image, what was white is black and what was black is white, the world of the film is turned inside-out. The world has been destroyed and made new. Freed from the control of Alpha60, the citizens of Alphaville stumble and spin through the halls as if their bodies had also been controlled by Alpha60.
Orwell concluded “1984” with the tragic line, “he loved Big Brother,” showing that what made the protagonist human, had been claimed by the state and used to destroy him.
However, Godard’s answer to the corrupt and bleak totalitarian world of Alphaville is poetry, the power of creativity, of creation, of Imago Dei, which had disappeared in this futuristic city in Paris. Godard ends the film with romantic optimism, offering a hope for the future as Natasha is able to speak freely from the control of Alpha60, while driving away from Alphaville she is driving toward creativity and expression. As Lemmy and Natacha drive away from the tyranny of Alphaville, Natasha shows that she has banished the ideological indoctrination as she learns a new phrase: "Je vous aime ..." The idea and experience of love that Alpha 60 had outlawed has been re-discovered, and Natacha has broken the bonds of Alphaville, awakening to new life and rediscovering her humanity. Only love lives on, as Natacha begins to pronounce and understand the meaning behind the words “I you love… I love you.” This shows the importance of the rebirth of the individual amidst ideological collectivism.
VonBaum brainwashed the citizens to follow only ordered thinking and thus created a society completely run by “logic”, though there has to be a yin and yang, and however small, abstract thinking manifested in the artificial intelligence via poetry. To create poetry one must think abstractly and in the realm of symbolism. Alpha60’s appropriation of Borges’s poetry in his speech showed that it could not completely eliminate or suppress it, if one is to create then the two are inseparable.
Godard is interested in the relation between speech and though, particularly how words order our individual thoughts and allow for autonomy, as he asserts in his film Notre musique; “a nation without poetry is defenseless.” For Godard, poetry expresses a certain awareness of the world, it is a philosophy which guides man throughout his life. When poetry and language are lost, society loses its essence. Love is humanity, and purging love and emotion is loss of humanity. Perhaps Godard is acknowledging that he lost his humanity when he got divorced, and the process of making the film was perhaps a striving to regain this or simply a lament on his loss. Divorce is always a tragedy. Godard’s regret is reminiscent of Ben Affleck’s lament on his recent divorce from Jennifer Garner as “the biggest regret of his life”(2), serving as a testament to the devastation of divorce and a call to reconciliation, before it’s too late.
(1) EVERYTHING IS CINEMA: the Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, by RICHARD BRODY, FABER AND FABER, 2020, Ch 11, pp. 223–236.
(2) Barnes, Brooks. “Ben Affleck Tried to Drink Away the Pain. Now He's Trying Honesty.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Feb. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/02/18/movies/ben-affleck.html.