FutureNoir: Godard's ALPHAVILLE

March 28, 2024 - 11:29am
Posted by Jim Healy


The following notes on Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville were written by Garrett Strpko, PhD student in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A new 4K DCP of Alphaville will screen at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 30, following the Madison Premiere of Godard's final work: Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars, at 7 p.m. The screening is in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. Admission is free!

By Garrett Strpko.

Even for a filmmaker whose films are known for their idiosyncrasy, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville remains one of his most fascinating and singular works. The film is in many ways a hybrid piece: at once a transmedia franchise genre picture and a puzzling work of European art cinema, a science fiction film and a hard-boiled pulp detective thriller, a canonical French film and a tribute to Hollywood. Now over a year after his passing, this new restoration of Alphaville attests to the director’s seemingly effortless ability to explode and reorient the limitations, labels, and rigidities so often imposed on the cinematic medium.

The film follows American agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who arrives from an interplanetary journey to Alphaville, a futuristic city controlled by Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon) and his creation, the artificial intelligence computer Alpha 60. Alpha 60 exercises complete control over the city and its citizens through the application and enforcement of cold logic and apathy. In Alphaville things like love, emotion, art, and poetry are strictly forbidden—and in many cases have been forgotten. Caution’s mission is to recover a missing fellow agent, Henry Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), as well as assassinate or capture Von Braun. Joined by Von Braun’s daughter Natacha (Anna Karina, in one of many collaborations with Godard), Caution eventually resolves to destroy Alpha 60 once and for all.

Importantly, Lemmy Caution was not an invention of Godard’s, but a well-known character in France and England, one who had already been portrayed by Constantine in no fewer than seven films since 1953. Caution was originally invented by British pulp author Peter Cheyney, who debuted the character in his first novel, This Man is Dangerous (1936). At first an FBI agent, and later a private investigator, Caution in many ways resembles the stereotypical hardboiled detective of American literature and film, from Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. In the wake of pro-American sentiment in France following the Second World War, the character became a sensation, especially as portrayed by American expatriate Constantine, who likewise became synonymous with the role for most of his career.

Terminally interested in the film medium’s affinity for iconicity and genre, Godard and Constantine make full use of the character and his prototypical characterization as the hardboiled gumshoe. He shares much in common with his counterparts portrayed by actors like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum: he is no-nonsense, quick-witted, and quicker with a gun. He is almost always dressed in a trench coat and fedora. He speaks in cynical, jaded voiceover about the nature of life’s great mysteries (“Yes, it's always like that. You never understand anything. And one night, you end it in death”).

However, in Alphaville, Caution and the detective figure are also parodied and complicated. Caution’s initial motivations and jurisdiction are deliberately mystified throughout. We know only that Caution is some sort of secret agent—we get little to no indication for exactly which agency he works for, who it is that has given him this mission. This self-conscious move (one of many in the film) creates an even stronger connection between Caution, Constantine, and the figure of the cinematic detective in general. It is almost as if Caution’s status and authority emerges from the film itself, from its genre identity as a Noir, rather than being justified by narrative detail. It is perhaps this vagueness surrounding Caution’s character—ultimately an outsider’s take on the American detective hero—that allows him to emerge as the Noir detective par excellence.

Nothing contributes more to this vagueness and iconic status, of course, than the fact that the contemporary Caution has inexplicably and without question been transplanted to the film’s futuristic, sci-fi setting from which the old-fashioned detective often stands out. As much as Alphaville pays tribute to film noir, it is also a science fiction film. It is a strange science fiction film in that rather than creating the complex sets, props, and special effects most viewers have come to expect from the genre to create the world, Godard relies entirely on existing locations and material. To suggest otherworldliness, Godard shot all the outdoor scenes at night, making it seem as though Alphaville is a city bathed in near-perpetual darkness. The high contrast of the black-and-white cinematography and accompanying brightness of light sources in the Paris night create a techno-dystopian atmosphere. Even the film’s many computers, including the ultra-advanced Alpha 60, are simply the wires and machines of their own day. The hard edges and blank/empty spaces of 1960s modernist architecture suggest all the futuristic setting one could need. By simply foregrounding and revealing the technological and futuristic aspects of our day-to-day world, Godard constructs a dynamic and potent ‘alien’ world in which to drop the old-fashioned and ‘naturalistic’ hero of American noir.

One way of approaching Alphaville is as Godard’s experiment in exploring what is necessary for genre. On the one hand genres have icons and stock characters; on the other they have narratives and styles. Is a film still a detective thriller if we drop the iconic central character into this apparently alien environment and situation? Can it be science fiction if nearly all the world-specific technological and futuristic details emerge primarily from dialogue and narrative rather than the mise-en-scene? But the questions and insights, of course, do not stop there. With Alphaville, Godard is as interested as ever in expanding the possibilities of cinema. What can happen when these icons, styles, environments, themes, and narratives merge? Through this amalgamation, in which both stand in greater relief, one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers draws us back to what appeals about them—and the medium itself—the most.