ALPHAVILLE, UNE ÉTRANGE AVENTURE DE LEMMY CAUTION (1965)
(Originally posted on May 21, 2013)
One of the interesting characteristics of many of the young men associated with La Nouvelle Vague was their affinity toward what in higher literary circles would be regarded as trashy pulp fiction. Francois Truffaut, for example, was drawn to this type of material as witness his productions of “La marièe était en noir” and “La sirène du Mississipi” both the product of novels by Cornell Woolrich, (“The Bride Wore Black” and “Waltz Into Darkness”, respectively) as well as his 1960 “Tirez sur le pianiste” which was an adaptation of the 1956 novel “Down There” by David Goodis.
Jean-Luc Godard, of course, began his feature film career in 1960 with “À bout de souffle”, a nod to the noirish influences on both literature and film (not insignificantly, the screen story is by Truffaut) and in 1965 wrote and directed “Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution”, a continuation of a popular series of French detective thrillers based on the very pulp/noir influenced adventures of Lemmy Caution, a character invented by British writer Peter Cheyney, and the subject of ten different novels before Cheyney’s untimely death in 1951 at the age of 55. Caution was originally conceived as an agent of the F.B.I. (though British, Cheyney wrote Caution in the American noir idiom) until later becoming a private investigator. Caution was depicted as hard and no nonsense man of immediate and violent action, in the tradition of other American hard-boiled detective characters like Brett Halliday’s Michael Shayne (that literary characterization heavily watered down in the still enjoyable series of films starring both Lloyd Nolan at Fox and Hugh Beaumont at PRC) and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, though his writing style in the Caution books contained strained imitations of the characteristic lyric similes in Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Caution became the basis of a popular series of French detective noirs starring expatriate American Eddie Constantine, who at the time was finding popularity as a European recording artist, and was a protege of the legendary Edith Piaf; his dour, pock-marked countenance finding a perfect home in the hard-boiled world of detective fictions where these same characteristics found relatively closed doors in finding any momentum pursuing a career in Hollywood studios.
“Alphaville, une ètrange aventure de Lemmy Caution” was the eighth Caution film to hit the screens, each starring Constantine. The character made his screen debut in 1953 with Bernard Boderie’s “La môme vert de gris” (“Poison Ivy”) and followed in rapid succession in 1953 again with Jean Sacha’s “Cet homme est dangereux” (“This Man is Dangerous”), in 1954 with Boderie’s “Les femmes s’en balancent” (“Dames Get Along”), in 1955 with Pierre Chevalier’s “Vous pigez?” (“Diamond Machine”) and three successive films directed by Boderie, 1960’s “Comment, qu’elle est!” (“Women Are Like That”), 1962’s “Lemmy pour les dames” (“Ladie’s Man”) and 1963’s “À toi de faire…mignonne” (“Your Turn, Darling”). All were typically straightforward tough guy detective stories with varying degrees of humor thrown in.
Enter La Nouvelle Vague enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard whose vision of the no nonsense tough guy Lemmy Caution was not straightforward, nor even conventionally hard-boiled, but a philosophic wanderer in trenchcoat and hat, waxing poetic while blasting his revolver and stuck in a science fiction universe of no discernible location. To say this idiosyncratic mixture was puzzling and off-putting to many is an understatement, yet there is an interesting method to this mad melange that has outward pretensions of venturing beyond merely random pastiche; an increasingly favorite convention of later filmmakers whose life experience seemed formulated and defined completely by film schools. (Joe Dante is an example of such a “director” who consistently throughout his films feels compelled to feature references to his favorite films- as if recalling trivial movie details bestows brownie points for excellence on his own paltry efforts- and pointlessly anachronistic cameos of the players who fed his childhood imagination.)
The film finds Caution as a Secret Agent (designated 003, which should indicate the ingenuity of pop culture satire in the film) entering Alphaville from the Outlands at 12:17 Oceanic time, greeted by a sign which reads: ALPHAVILLE- SILENCE LOGIC SAFETY PRUDENCE. Clearly any allusions to “1984” are blatant and intentional, as are later references to Nazism and the Cold War. Despite the film assumedly taking place in a futuristic world, the constant attributions to 20th Century experiences places the events in a possible “alternate” world. Nor are references to other galaxies reliable as Godard seems to be having a fine time developing his own vernacular, a cinematic version of the Orwellian doublespeak.
The “1984” connection is central to the film and the essential formative influence. The previously mentioned reference to Oceania, the sign notating the four precepts of Alphaville mirroring the four ministries overseeing Oceania, the allusions to doublespeak as Natacha says one thing but physically gestures the opposite intention, the omnipresent electronically engineered voice of Alpha 60, as smothering a presence as the Big Brother is Watching You posters, the dictionaries misleadingly called “bibles” with the explanation that vocabulary is continuously replaced or entirely deleted, plus the invention of compound words such as Caution’s statement he is “driving through intersidereal space” have vivid resemblance to the concept of Newspeak and most central, the words “I Love You” which in the novel Julia passes to Winston Smith in a secret message, whereas in the film they are the final words from Anna Karina’s Natacha to Caution, her moment of independent break from the influences of Alpha 60 and the triumphant return of her own individualistic impulses.
While pastiche is used for more than cosmetic effect, it is an overplayed conceit that pulls the viewer out of the immersive filmgoing experience to continually remind of the artificiality of the film’s universe, no doubt a ruse by the director to explore more forcefully his desire to deconstruct film into its purest form of “truth”, which is an entirely legitimate idea except that the tired content of the film does nothing to advance such an approach. At the same time, why attempt such an exercise partially using a cinema genre in which realism is, more often than not, jettisoned in the adherence to the examples of Expressionistic artifice then deconstruct that layer of artifice, but without a cogently developed reason for doing so? Many of Godard’s central reference points, especially those with a profound literary basis- Borges, Cocteau, French surrealist Éluard– would initially appear to find a relevant inclusion in this patchwork tale of dystopian society, while the more pronounced culture references are almost insultingly surrounded in quotation marks as if Godard doesn’t believe his audience is smart enough to pick up on his trail of pop art bread crumbs. The scientist von Braun is an obvious reference to the German scientist instrumental in both Nazi and NASA programs, and the later reference that he may have been previously known as Nosferatu; the Stoker/Murnau reference applied to a Romanian word (which in actuality does not exist) presumed to mean “undead” – an tenuous allusion of Orwell’s “unman”? Obvious, and rather infantile references are also made to, amongst others: Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy and Terrytoon magpies Heckle and Jeckle, belaying what presumably is meant to be a further extension of the SF/noir genre osmosis into a more appealing melange of hipster pop-art. The inclusions of such reference points are not only thematically irrelevant, they come of as alarmingly smart-alecky, as if Godard is consciously sneering at the audience for their attention.
The ultimate failure of the film lies in the fact that pastiche is not merely used as a form of narrative grouting, but as the structural design of the entire film, the reason that its distinct parts fail to coalesce, exposing the empty head of the film. In the end, there is very little originality at work here. The halfhearted noir element becomes is only a gimmick on which to present the narrative, but then it seems the integration of any genre might have equally sufficed: western, musical, circus film. And if there is no meaningful contributory reason to have the genre elements introduced, how are we to view the director’s decision except as a bit of self-indulgent affectation? And what of the inclusion of the science fiction element? With the exception of the very idea of the supreme controlling entity being a machine, a concept brought to the screen with far greater finesse in Joseph Sargent’s neglected “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, there isn’t much there. (A few fleeting references to galaxies do hardly a formidable SF concept make.)
Filmed on the cheap, with no budget for the grandiosity of production design and effects that usually distract from the paucity of ideas expressed in modern film SF, “Alphaville” was filmed entirely within the achitecturally sterile modernity of various Parisian environs, It is a landscape both familiar and foreboding, utilitarian and functionally labyrinthine; a world in which the cold hand of the Alpha 60 impressed logic deprives human perception of the concept of warmth, comfort and expression. On the other hand, as representing the ideological alternative we are presented with the granite-like countenance of Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, and there is little hint that this agent of the “Outlands” comes equipped with a stirring agenda with which to incite a revolt against either von Braun or his dictatorial creation. Caution’s method of destroying Alpha 60, by presenting the logic obsessed machine with an imponderable thought- poetry- is rather a bit of inexcusably lazy and illogical screenwriting when you consider this same computer opens the film with a far more arcane contemplation from Jorge Luis Borges.
Consider that the conventions of the film noir genre are atypical of other cinematic forms, due to the depiction of the hero battling in a completely anarchistic environment whose very immoral components were anathema to the censorial leash of the Production Code, and thus required an elemental shift from what was normally put under a rigorous moral scrutiny, to an alteration of tone and substance which would masquerade offensive issues of morality under a polarizing cloak of shadowy surfaces and disproportionate levels of fatalistic retribution. Whatever its aesthetic flourishes, film noir was about the creative depiction of the “bad” under the baleful glare of the “champions” of the “good”. Science fiction, on the other hand, was under no such restrictive considerations. Morality with regards to science is a philosophical construct, not necessarily consistent with the violent and sexual undertones of Godard’s approach to the material which, as stated, is admittedly unconventional right from the start. The film begins with many of the expected characteristics of the noir genre: voiceover narration, menacing nocturnal backdrops, a cigarette smoking tough guy in a trenchcoat, dramatically overwrought musical punctuations- yet, there is something disarming at the same time. There is an inordinate amount of time (for a man who supposedly revolutionized the concept of the jump cut) spent setting up scenes. Arrivals at hotels and rooms are composed only seemingly endless tracking shots in corridors (Raoul Coutard’s photography is ingeniously creative throughout the film, and scholars might note the quality of Godard’s films took a distinctive nose dive when they ended their long association.) as if the talk of “the outer cities” and “the galaxy” indicates that long distance space travel is taking place; a hybrid mixture of scientific reference with the noir vernacular. (This predates Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” by seven years, in which he also symbolized space travel through an extended auto travel sequence.) In that Godard has removed the character of Caution from his normal stylistically artificial environment of the noir thriller and placed him in an equally “unreal” alternate SF landscape, one might have expected there to be a knowing commentary about how the artificiality of genre conventions subvert “truthful” explorations of any meaningful emotional or intellectual depth, but the truth is, the only reason Godard conveys for the odd hybrid nature of his film is there is no reason at all.
When Godard depicts the women of Alphaville as either numbered, tranquilized pleasure drones, or as participants in an aquatic circus that ceremoniously retrieves or finishes off execution victims in a gymnasium pool, what is his point? Is this a satiric take on women in SF? In noir? Or is it the hint of a deeper, more personal misogyny? After all, if the society were controlled by the logical brain of the Alpha 60, it would seem that gender specificity would hardly be an issue in the assignment of social roles. This is hardly the logic of the machine but of the director and his complete confusion of just what it is he is attempting to express. Ultimately Godard doesn’t seem particularly interested in his chosen genre conventions except to use them as hooks to hang costumes on borrowed ideas that have fractionalized meaning outside of their original context, and remain annoyingly inert in the vacuum he substitutes for his own lack of substantive thematic contributions. What he attempts to do using both the foundational elements of both SF and noir is to present legitimate ideological impressions on an ill-conceived novelty skeleton but in doing so actually deconstructs “literary” truth into “cinematic” triviality.
Godard has been publicly possessed by his arcane concept of “truth” in Cinema but the sadder truth, evident on the screen, is that with this misconceived and often shamelessly cannibalized fusion of disparate genre elements masquerading as profundity, the director has proven he is wearing no clothes.