“Sometimes reality is too complex for oral communication,” says the gurgling, gravelly-sounding computer voice at the start of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 iconoclastic science-fiction detective picture, Alphaville (available on DVD). “But,” the voice continues, “legend enhances it in a form which enables it to spread all over the world.” Film, of course, is a modern form of legend, so Godard sets his course pretty clearly at the outset. After that, you’re on your own.
Apart from a huge close-up of an irregularly flashing light, about the first image in the movie you can recognize is a tough-looking detective figure (Eddie Constantine) in the driver’s seat of his car, lighting a cigarette, then checking his gun, before driving on into the night. The Los Angeles-born Constantine was well-known to French film and music fans, having become a popular recording artist in that country before evolving into a French movie star through a successful 1950's-60’s series of hard-boiled detective pictures, playing Lemmy Caution, an American private eye based on the mystery novels of Peter Cheyney. The ironic and affectionate subtitle to Alphaville, therefore, had considerable resonance with moviegoers in France, and none at all over here: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution.
That Jean-Luc Godard, often called the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, would take for his ninth feature (the number is actually mentioned in the brief, tiny credits) a pulp-fiction character and put him into a deadly futuristic fable of loveless computer-control, was a provocative, revolutionary, and eventually quite influential move. The computer-dominated universe of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey came out three years after Alphaville, just around the time Godard essentially turned his back for good on “narrative” cinema, or movies that might entertain.
Not that Alphaville, which opened the 1965 New York Film Festival, is in any way typical of any other movies, except Jean-Luc Godard’s. Although it is, for example, set in some future time in a distant galaxy, there are no special effects or even specially designed sets. Godard’s radical concept was to shoot the entire picture on real locations, in real settings which then existed in and around Paris, and which, through his choice of angles and lighting, were made to look distinctly other-world, with a kind of nightmarish similarity to ours. In the lavishly illustrated, flamboyantly designed comprehensive history, French New Wave (Distributed Art Publishers, N.Y.), Cahiers du Cinema veteran Jean Douchet wrote: “...Alphaville, which made politics and philosophy the fundamental elements of science fiction, was the quintessential expression of a genre. Because science fiction is rarely taken seriously in the cinema, where far too often peripheral matters take precedence over the subject, Godard also, and quite unconsciously, made a film outside the genre.”
That’s for sure. And yet, paradoxically, Douchet also calls the picture, “one of the best science-fiction films ever made,” and he’s right there, too. High among the main qualities I like in the few vintage science-fiction films I remember fondly—-such as Howard Hawks’ The Thing, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Godard’s Alphaville—-is the essential everyday reality they all conjure up so convincingly. Which leads to another paradox: Alphaville is heavily stylized throughout, in performance, technique, photography, but still it convinces because of the personal viewpoint brilliantly sustained, the consistency of the world presented, the banal ordinariness even in its weird terror, the utter lovelessness. In the city of Alphaville, love is not only forbidden, it is forgotten. Emotions of any kind are outlawed because only logical thinking is allowed. People are viciously executed for crying when a loved one dies.
In his excellent liner notes for the DVD, Andrew Sarris mentions being “more moved” now by the ending than when he first saw the film. I felt the same way. There is today something strangely touching about the final scene coming from as avant-garde a filmmaker as Godard: The beautiful Anna Karina—-whom Godard clearly adored, whom he introduced into pictures around the same time he married her in 1961, and who starred in seven of his films, three of them after their divorce in 1964—-rides in Eddie Constantine’s car as they flee Alphaville, and she tries hard to recall, and then succeeds in remembering how to say, the most forbidden phrase of all: “Je vous aime.”