Jean-Luc Godard: “Alphaville”

“I’m very well, thank you, not at all.” These robotic words are uttered repeatedly in greeting and in parting by the inhabitants of Alphaville, a futuristic and dystopian version of Paris controlled by a Fascist computer system called Alpha 60. In this city concocted by Jean-Luc Godard in his 1965 film, Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, all residents are devoid of human emotions, unaware of the meanings of words such as “love” and “poetry,” and are tattooed with numbers and codes so they can be easily monitored by their computer dictator.

However, this all soon changes with the arrival of Lemmy Caution, the hardboiled intergalactic spy from “The Outlands.” caution brings to Alphaville a detectable air of rebellion, whether through subtle acts like resisting the “seductresses” – which no other man in the film seems able to do – or through much larger actions, the largest unarguably being the ultimate destruction of Alpha 60.

Caution arrives on his first night in this strange city with not much more than his handgun and his Ford Galaxy at his disposal. Though both objects prove indispensable by the end of the film, perhaps Caution’s best weapon is his no-nonsense attitude. Viewers first see him wield this weapon during the hotel room scene toward the beginning of the film. As mentioned, Caution manages to resist the sexual beckoning of a seductress (the first of many he will encounter and resist in Alphaville) who brings him to his hotel room and offers to bathe him, among other things. She even goes as far as to undress herself and get into the bathtub, but Caution simply pushes her forcefully out of the room and shuts the door in her face. Despite the fact that prostitutes are not commonly considered to be figures of authority, Caution’s actions – his abstinence in the face of intense seduction as well as his willingness to be physically forceful with a woman – indicate defiance against human nature and moral codes, and defiance is the key ingredient for creating a hero who will rise up against authority. Indeed, Caution proves that he does have the making for a rebel against authority when, within the same scene, he beats, shoots and kills an intruding police officer in a matter of minutes, no questions asked.

An additional example of Caution’s defiance from the norms of society within Alphaville are in his knowledge of things the citizens of Alphaville are forbidden from knowing. One of these such topics is poetry, and Caution literally has this knowledge at his fingertips when Henry Dickinson – a fellow agent from the Outlands who has been trapped in Alphaville and has nearly forgotten about his previous life – dies of a presumed heart failure and instructs Caution to use the poetry book under his pillow to destroy Alpha 60. With this book, he attempts to bring Natacha von Braun – the daughter of Professor von Braun, who is the creator of Alphaville – away from the cold logic and emotionlessness of the society in which she has brought up by enlightening her with words she has never heard of (such as “love”) and reminding her of words she used to know and enjoy (such as “tenderness”).  Caution also uses his knowledge of emotional concepts and words when he is under interrogation by Alpha 60, one example occurring when Alpha 60 asks, “What transforms the day into night?” to which Caution very illogically replies “Poetry.” Language triumphs over logic one final time at the very end of the film, when after just barely escaping the self-destructing Alphaville , Caution instructs Natacha to find the words that will set her free once and for all from the terror of Alpha 60. In the end, after an inward struggle to find them, those words end up being the most forbidden in the city: “I love you.”

The final rebellious strike administered by Caution against Alpha 60 and Alphaville is his ultimate destruction of the dictating supercomputer. After discovering that Alpha 60 is responsible for the death of Henry Dickinson and that the computer and its creator, Professor von Braun, plan to wage war against the Outlands for no apparent reason other than destroying any potential threats to Alphaville, Caution is more empowered than ever to end their reign. He is brought once again to Alpha 60 for questioning once the computer discovers the agent’s true identity (he had been dwelling Alphaville under the alias “Ivan Johnson”), and it is during this interrogation that Caution makes his first step in destroying Alpha 60. When Alpha 6o reveals he knows that Ivan Johnson is actually Lemmy Caution, a spy, he asks, “What is your secret?” To this question inquiring about how the “insignificant” human managed to deceive the intelligent supercomputer, Caution replies: “Something that never changes with the night or the day, as long as the past represents the future, towards which it will advance in a straight line, but which, at the end, has closed in on itself into a circle.” As Alpha 60 attempts to unravel this riddle of an answer, Caution tell it once it figures out the meaning, it will subsequently destroy itself. After further confrontation Caution flees from the interrogation room in search of Professor von Braun, and finds him in the process of leaving for the Outlands to begin the war. After a conversation in which von Braun attempts to convince Caution to stay in Alphaville rather than leave and face impending destruction in his homeland, Caution shoots the professor dead and then shoots Alpha 60. The sources of all control over the city having been destroyed, the residents of Alphaville appear to short-circuit themselves, with the men unable to control their walking and the women all pressed up against walls, pressing their hands against them and sliding up and down. Caution finds Natacha exhibiting the latter behavior in the interrogation room. Here, Caution administers one last blow to Alpha 60 using again words and concepts it abhors by saying of himself and Natacha: “We are happiness, and we are making our way towards it.” Caution and Natacha then flee from the crippling city in the Ford Galaxy and this film ends shortly after with Natacha’s “I love you.”

 

Written by: Victoria Brathwaite

Sources:

Darke, Chris. Alphaville. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Print.
 
Whitehead, Peter. Alphaville. London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1972. Print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s