In the first part of an ongoing series about why Jean Luc Godard is a genius, this is about one of the most stunning and engrossing movies I have ever seen. Alphaville. A science fiction film without special effects. Set in a dystopian world that looks identical to Paris and takes us on a visual tour around some of the cities early 1960’s modernist architecture. A movie that is also part Chandler, part film noir, part Orwellian nightmare with a dash of Louis Ferdinand Celine and Jorge Luis Borges.
We meet the leading man Lemmy Caution, who looks like he’s walked out of every Bogart movie you’ve ever seen. He has a look of steely determination. It’s the classic 1960’s movie archetype of a man with purpose. When accosted by a beautiful woman (a level three seductress no less), she’s not given so much as a first glance let alone a second. This is a man with a job to do and he’s intent on doing it. You got this in the early Sean Connery Bond films before the role was ultimately softened and Bond was made to atleast exchange a glib or flirty one liner with the woman. Here, it is the textbook Gregory Peck determined scowl and an assertive “Clear off.” Also on another note writing a hard-boiled character like this also produces stronger women characters within the story as a result, as the women have to be actually y’know relevent and play a part in driving the story forward rather than just eye-candy for the leading man or there to engage in a bit flirty banter or provide a shoulder to cry on, such is the case in most modern movies.
I digress. This is is such a fantastically shot movie and the strength of Godard is in the confidence he has in his actors and the rare ability to just put the camera down and fix a scene where there isn’t actually a lot happening. Few directors can do this. The best recent example of such quality directing would be Steve McQueen in Hunger when he sets a camera on Fassbender and the priest for twenty minutes and lets the dialogue unfurl. There’s no reliance on providing constant stimulation to the viewer and changing frame every two seconds to maintain engagement. Having the confidence to do this is rare and not only does Godard have faith in his actors, he trusts his viewer. As a result, his movies play out to their conclusion with pretty much all violence and nudity left to the imagination – and the end result is actually all the more satisfying for it.
It’s the simplicity of the movie though which provides the most satisfaction. Taking a familiar concept such as the hardboiled detective story and then setting it against an innate threat which is actually probably more pertinent in the current day and age than it was in the sixties. The nacent threat is a technocratic society where lives are controlled by machines and the people are systematically conditioned in semantics (see: modern PR, marketing, media or as it’s sometimes known, propaganda).
One of my favourite concepts: The bible prevalent in every hotel room scene, in what is a lovely twist is actually a reguarly updated dictionary where words are removed and made obsolete whilst more appropriate words are freshly added. This builds on one of the most frightening parts of the movie: In attempting to control the limits of thought, the manipulation of language is perhaps the most foundational tool of all, for an individual can only think in the vocabulary available to them. In colonial societies the effect of this has been devastating. By suppressing language you suppress culture and identity. I have wrote about this previously, Alphaville takes this concept to its extreme.
In what is an inverse allusion to Camus’ The Outsider, the idea is to create a logical society free from emotion. This is actually very much pertinent to the kind of secular and self-defined rationalist society desired by many atheists and humanists these days. In reducing everything to scientific lines, we’re left with a Christian society sans God, ran on terrifying technocratic lines for big business and profit. Although the great tragedy is that no-one will actually know what money is for, as we got rid of all abstractions: poetry, art, music along with irrelevant distractions like kindess, affection, love, friendship in the process. Fortunately, as the movie helpfully explains, there is no reason to ask “why” we should or should not have such things, just say “because.”
The villain of the piece: the machine if you wish to rationalise, is actually a light and a fan with an eery low pitched croak. If you wish to be more abstract and upto date, you can imagine it’s the eyestalk of a French speaking Dalek. However, to look at this rationally or abstractly actually does a disservice to what manages to be massively unnerving. Presenting a quasi-ominiponent menace controlling everyones thoughts and aspirations in a fashion that everyone can strongly relate to makes it horrific and a brilliant piece of film-making. Tremendously done.