Midway through Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, we witness a strange series of executions. Men in suits stand on diving boards, say there last words, get shot, and fall or jump into the pool below. Synchronized swimmers gracefully circle the floating bodies and hit them repeatedly to assure that they are dead before dragging them away to make way for another shooting. Spectators clap enthusiastically on the sidelines. Before meeting death, one of the accused lets out this impassioned statement; "Listen to me normal ones. We see a truth that you no longer see. A truth that says the essence of man is love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice. Everything else is an obstacle put up by your blind progress and innocence." Their crime? asks our protagonist Lemmy Caution, who is posing as the journalist Ivan Johnson but who is actually agent 003 sent from the pays exterieurs. The response is that the men are being executed for having "acted illogically."
If this appeal for love and tenderness (and art... there are no artists on Alphaville) seems unusually emotional for the usually coolly intellectual and sardonic Godard, then it is in part. There's still a lot of irreverent coolness going on, with Hollywoodesque strings that you know Godard wasn't totally serious about, subversion of film noir cliches, wacky editing, and "level 3" seductresses, who take their clothes off at every opportunity, parading about. And the use of the swimmers in the execution scene shows more of a penchant for the absurd than anything else. But still, that message about the inhumanity of technology and science is what carries the film; we really are getting Godard's version of Farenheit 451 or 1984 or Brave New World. And "love" truly is of supreme importance.
So what does Godard's dystopian future look like you might ask? Well it looks pretty much exactly like Paris in 1965, because that's exactly what it is ( I think it's supposed to take place about 30 years in the future). Asides from a couple of smoky rooms filled with computer banks, there are no sets, and the costume for our hero is the standard trench coat and gun. Stripping away all the inessential probably had something to do with budget and Godard's impromptu filming style (he reportedly didn't have much of a script to work on and much of the dialogue was improvised as filming went along) as well as with the desire to put the horrors of the future firmly in the now.
But you also have to let your audience get lost in your futuristic world, and Alphaville is weird enough to let that happen. For one, there's the deep and somewhat disturbing voice of the omnipresent Alpha 60, the evil computer that controls Alphaville and does everything from take orders for breakfast to interrogate Lemmy on the nature of love and religion. Then there's that cool noir vibe and Eddie Constantine's Bogart-like stoicism. Others have pointed out that Alphaville owes a lot to Fritz Lang and German Expressionism and there's definitely that eeriness in the way it feels. There are also bright flashing neon letters that take up the whole screen and spell NORD or SUD or E=MC2 or Hf=MC2. These last two in particular keep returning and eventually become quite ominous. Something tells me Godard doesn't have much of an understanding of science.
Well I've written four paragraphs and haven't even mentioned the plot. To sum it up, Caution is sent to Alphaville to observe it, take lots of pictures, and do whatever he feels necessary. Eventually he feels it's necessary to kill Professor Von Braun, the mastermind behind the whole operation, and put an end to Alphaville. His other main purpose is to fall in love with Anna Karina, a task that should not be difficult for anyone to accomplish. Karina plays Natach Von Braun, the professor's daughter, although she claims to have never met him. I must admit, I was a little confused by who she was and how she got there; I just figured her main purpose was to look beautiful and ask the meaning of "love", "conscience", "tenderness" and other words that have been deemed dangerous and unnecessary and have been forbidden by Alpha 60. Caution also reads her poetry in a scene that is particularly beautiful and emotional.
Really, it's a pretty simple story, but it seems a little more confusing at first because it's so dense. Alpha 60 gives philosophical musings throughout, and certain events seem to come out of nowhere like Caution's attending of some sort of film projection/lecture that contains more philosophical and scientific musings. The good thing about this is that a lot of interesting things are said. Take the exchange between Alpha 60 and Caution for example:
Alpha 60: Do you know what illuminates the night
Lemmy Caution: Poetry
A: What is your religion?
L: I believe in the inspiration of conscience.
A: Do you know the distinction between the mysterious principles of knowledge and those of love
L: I believe that in love there is no mystery.
Those are some pretty lyrical and thoughtful responses. We get a little of Godard's existentialism, as well as a statement affirming the importance of love. Later another exchange between the man and the machine reveals the fundamental difference between a reliance on logic and worldview based on faith in humanity:
A: I shall calculate so that failure is impossible.
L: I shall fight so that failure is possible.
So if the story starts off somewhere in 1984 territory, the end result is something radically different. Godard gives us an optimistic and fun movie focused on the power of love and human error. Now why did it take me 30 minutes to figure out how to upload a picture with this review? Godard was right...fuck technology.