Continuing where we last left off, Jean Luc Godard had a strong influence on William Klein’s use of comic book and pop-art imagery in Mr. Freedom (1969). That film registered like a late-60s archive of “transmissions from a desperate planet,” to quote David Byrne’s description of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), created by him and Brian Eno, a masterful record that layered taped radio broadcasts over looping funk beats.
While there was nothing very funky about Mr. Freedom—its anger at U.S. Cold War antics, at times, has a grating tone—its clinched-fist reportage bounded off in surreal directions, and if it ended where it began (a comment on the repetition of groupthink militaristic strategizing), it was, I argued, worth the trip.
In Alphaville (1965), written and directed by Godard, the desperation is much cooler, making it an easier film to watch. And you can tell Godard is having fun with a cinematic cocktail shaken full of B-grade film-noir outtakes, atomic café postcards, and a plot that often floats in zero gravity. A tough guy secret agent, Lemmy Caution, tasked with saving the world, encounters characters, such as Professor Vonbraun and Heckel and Jeckel, that drop the names of rocket scientists and cartoon figures. Along the way, Lemmy, acted by the stone-faced Eddie Constantine (who appeared in a series of European films in this role) is romantically paired with an alien femme fatale, Natasha, played by Godard regular, the stunningly attractive Anna Karina.
The iconic close shots of Karina’s face stand out, even as the film takes a languorous pleasure in hiding detail. We actually find out rather little about the characters: there is nothing to look past or beyond—the experience seems to go beyond language, a trademark attitude of Godard’s that insists there is always something more than words.
Godard especially enjoys poking fun at anyone who expects coherence at the expense of creative impulse, and no more so than in this film. Riffing on the idea that romance derives its power from mixing comedy and tragedy, Godard goes further by exploring micro-tonal spaces where it is just as easy to laugh at tragedy and feel anxious about comedy as it is to do just the opposite.
The story, presented with a sparing amount of special effects, opens with Lemmy’s arrival in Alphaville to defuse its warring against the rest of the galaxy. The basic conflict is humans against technology, as the agent battles the super-computer, Alpha 60, that runs the place. In a reflection of this premise as it boils down to comic-book archetypes, Godard originally wanted to title the film, Tarzan vs. IBM.
Alphaville is a profoundly dehumanized society. Emotions, particularly love, have been banned, and everyone, dosed on tranquilizers, acts like robots; those who cannot get with the program are marginalized, living in seedy hotels and sooner or later signing up for state-sponsored suicide. Godard does little in way of set design to bring out this futuristic setting, suggesting that the seeds of totalitarianism are already sown in 60s society: faceless high-rises and computer programmers and flashing neon lights, although in a witty touch, the lights flash “E=MC2.”
The use of ready-mades in the film extends to the plot: the mysterious scientist, Vonbraun, whom Lemmy is looking for and Natasha’s double-dealings allude to Kiss Me Deadly (1955). But whereas that film ended with an apocalyptic nuclear explosion, Alphaville is more optimistic, proposing that imagination can solve the Cold War impasse. In sharp contrast with Alpha 60’s reign of censorship, Lemmy is a literary enthusiast. During his interrogation by the super-computer, the exchange is revealing. When asked, “What transforms darkness into light?’, he replies with “la poésie (poetry).” Lemmy has a cosmic coolness and existential flair: he is what Godard thinks would be a fine superhero in a time of modern crisis. He defeats Alpha 60 by feeding it a paradox that fries its circuits.
In the film, Godard shows off his own imagination, combining Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Herbert Marcuse (the author of the seminal study of social repression, One Dimensional Man, published in 1964, a year before the film’s release). You might think a comic-book superhero movie could simply not find room for all of these references. Godard does so by moving inwards, rather than outwards—thus contrasting how the Marvel universe’s sheer scale seeks to corner the market.
In Alphaville, such a move is dramatized by Natasha’s developing a consciousness that is tied to the capacity to love. Her fragile reading of the line, “Je vous aime (I love you),” adds a serious note about how human emotions can be both recovered and lost, how superheroes can be both more and less than human. Lemmy escapes with Natasha, and they travel through the galaxy in a vintage automobile; it is an ending that does away with logic entirely and opens fully into a world of imagination. This is Godard’s last warning—that a completely rationalistic world would be as difficult to face as a thermonuclear war.
If only the recent comic-book superhero movies dared to make similar moves, we would be talking about how they embrace the imaginative possibilities of the genre. Which would extend to the uncomfortable and gruesome. One of the memorable scenes in Alphaville is the execution of political dissidents staged as a swimming pool pageant, which is strangely funny and terrifying at the same time; a few years later, Godard would up the ante with the cannibalistic finale of Weekend (1967).
Sure, it would be easy to argue that Godard’s revolutionary spirit is not translatable to the mindset of Hollywood bean-counters, who would only appreciate films such as Alphaville for being the bold exception to the rule of the free market. I’d be rather tempted to make this argument myself. But I would instead, for the moment, choose to remain optimistic that Godard’s challenge might be received in a more positive way.
That would mean building cinematic worlds from the starting point of stylistic departures from what we have already seen, which is, granted, harder to do in practice than in theory. Hollywood keeps in the practice of harvesting indie filmmakers to do precisely this for its comic-book superhero franchise. But regardless of budget, the crucial imperative stays the same, to be both entertaining and serious, a feat Godard pulls off throughout the late-60s: a perfect follow-up to Alphaville is the one-two punch of Made in U.S.A. (1966) and Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967).
And it is equally important to make films that reflect the specific cultural moment. Alphaville has a giddiness that seems very much like 1965, even though its setting is a futuristic world in another part of the galaxy. This is three years away from the Paris uprisings of 1968, yet Godard already is forecasting the demonstrators’ battle cry: “Sous les pavés, la plage! (Under the paving-stones, the beach!).” That Godard seems to know exactly where to look to find a promising future is what makes Alphaville an enduring wonder in a world that at the present is so driven for cinematic pleasure that it almost begs the question of how going to see the latest blockbuster can at all be an enjoyable experience. Unless, of course, you look at it from Alpha 60’s perspective—that creates the darkness which Godard’s poetry can transform.