Alphaville (1965)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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Alphaville imagines a grim future dominated by detrimental logic and a computer system with a voice that sounds as though it’s been yanked from the death rattle of a long-time smoker.  Combine that with the loud beeps, flashing lights and all around lack of personality of noir hero Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), and Alphaville is not exactly the most entertaining sci-fi journey, but it is quite sincere in its own surly conviction.

Caution is a fish out of water in this futuristic town that really looks no different than any other 1960’s French city except for the computers and his insistence that this is the future.  It’s a movie future concerned little with set design, costumes and the like and instead focused on the pervading feeling of doom.

Caution poses as a journalist when he sneaks into Alphaville, sent on a mission to kill Professor von Braun and the computer (Alpha60) he created, which now runs the city.  He takes photos of nearly everything he sees, with the grim expression of a compulsive peeping tom.  He observes the city’s rituals and behaviors, given an unofficial tour by Natacha von Braun, the professor’s daughter though they have never met.

In one scene they watch as convicted men (for crimes such as grief) stand on a diving board over a pool, are shot with a machine gun, then are chased through the water by knife-bearing women who swan dive in after them.  It is overly performative, free for anyone to watch, and no one bats an eye.

Caution also happens to fall in love with Natacha, and it’s this illogical emotion which shoves some chaos into Alphaville.  The computer, Alpha60, interrogates Caution twice, the first time considering his intelligence either an asset or a mark of danger, and then by the second interview he is already a wanted man.

He will shoot his way through the men coming after him, rather easily in fact, and in one case a man shot through the head doesn’t even react to his own death.  They are like fruit flies swatted into oblivion.

Caution and Natacha then escape Alphaville, with him telling her not to look back at its ongoing destruction, like that of Sodom and Gomorrah.

All of the characters in Alphaville live life in the moment.  Alpha60 will repeatedly speak almost poetically of time, which is a bit funny and perhaps purposefully so since it runs the city which has banned anything remotely resembling art.  This is a city ruled by science, a city that punishes grief, laughter and love.  The film is unabashedly poetic in its own right, almost embarrassingly so.

What’s interesting about all this is that the idea of truly living in the moment, under the thought that the past and present don’t and will never exist, seems in theory like a noble pursuit.  That’s what so many spiritual modes of thought are about, right?  You forget the past and present and live fully in the now.  And yet in Alphaville the citizens do live fully in the moment and are yet very much the thing to be feared.  The movie presents such a present state of being as something inhuman.  To live fully in the now is to not feel emotion and instead to almost be too plugged into reality.

To take a step back and to reflect, yearn, fear, laugh, cry, etc. is to consider both the past and the future.  It’s perhaps more painful, but that’s what it means to be human.

So unless I completely misread this film, it paints the sought after “presence” as something alien to our own existence, not just in how we live but how we should live.  It’s an argument for the past and future but not necessarily an indictment of the present. Alphaville just seems to suggest that to be so aware of the present moment is to experience some other kind of death, but not a good one.

To die within our own lifetime, it seems, would be to break free of so many of the things that cause us pain, including most of all our attachment to our own bodies.  It’s meant to be liberating, to know that all of this will pass, our own flesh included, and that such a thing is not only okay but beautiful too.  It’s pure and existential and all kinds of things, but Alphaville predicts a more sterile imagination of such liberation.  To be so present, Godard suggests, is to be lobotomized.

Up Next: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018), Trouble Every Day (2001), Under the Silver Lake (2018)

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