FANTASIA OBSCURA: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Blade Runner’ Predecessor… Sort Of

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, Capital of Pain is more than just a book of poetry by Paul Eluard

Alphaville (1965)

Distributed by: Athos Films
Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

Please note that there may be spoilers in this review; then again, maybe there aren’t after all, who knows? Words and meanings have only the value we declare them to have…

Must. Resist. Obvious. Comment.

Ask someone to think of a genre film that involves a lone man of action in the electric city with a trench coat and a gun out to get the job done, and this is usually what comes to mind:

Blade Runner has cachet as a major milestone in genre films. It’s cited as a primary influence on the styling of the cyberpunk esthetic, and it has many debts owed it by such works as Akira and Dark City.

It also has a predecessor that it certainly owes its aesthetic sensibilities to:

We’re told in on-camera narration that this is Alphaville, a capitol of a distant galaxy, although the term “galaxy” seems to be applied where the word “country” might better serve. (Not entirely unlike another film that confused “parsecs” with a unit of time…).

There are two narrators we hear, the voice of the computer Alpha 60 (an uncredited actor whose cancerous larynx was removed and replaced with a mechanical voice box) and that of Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a spy sent there on a mission from another galaxy, one where New York is located.

Like we said, words have only the value we declare them to have.

Caution’s mission has a number of objectives. First, he must make contact with Henri Dickson (Akim Tamiroff), an agent deployed earlier to gather intel. When he finds him, Dickson’s not in great shape; Alpha 60 keeps up continual pressure to make people conform to its emotional control and full obedience, and those that refuse are encouraged to commit suicide.

Caution has time for only a brief conversation about how Alpha 60 works before Dickson takes in a “Seductress Level Three,” the title of the young woman he hires to come into his room, in whose arms he drops dead.

In Alphaville, if you resist and refuse to just off yourself, they have other ways of dealing with you.

Accompanying Caution by this point on his trip through a city where logic is imposed on the individual in a process that kills the soul, where everyone greets you without prompting with “I’m very well, thank you” is Natacha Von Braun (Anna Karina), whose title is “Programmer Second Class.”

Mind you, when she’s in the room with Alpha 60, she and the other members of her profession just sit there and listen to the computer make proclamations as to why it insists on humans behaving like applets in support of the main CPU. Not quite the “programming” her title suggests…

As it so happens, she is the daughter of Professor Von Braun, fka Professor Nosferatu (Howard Vernon) , who is also one of Caution’s objectives. Caution has been instructed to neutralize the Professor, capture and bring him out if possible, though other means have been sanctioned.

When his first contact with Professor Von Braun is compromised, Caution is brought before Alpha 60 for an interrogation, where he maintains his cover as Igor Johnson, a reporter from Figaro-Pravda.

Impressed with how he handled the interrogation, Alpha 60 and Von Braun invite Caution to become a spy for them, to go back to his galaxy and ferment unrest there to make it easier for Alphaville to conquer them in the war it is plotting.

He turns them down, just as Natacha pays him a visit, where exposure to him is starting to break through Alpha 60’s programming and put other ideas in her head, ideas for which the dictionaries in Alphaville (which get replaced daily) try to dissuade:

In terms of where ideas came from, for this film, Godard supposedly was winging it even more than usual. Usually the practice for Godard was to avoid the script as much as possible when he shot his films; scenes for Breathless were fleshed out between breakfast and first call on the set, for example.

The improvised style of scripting is painfully front and center here, where concepts are hurled at us at near light speed while passages inspired by and lifted from Jorge Luis Borges come from the mouths of characters.

Some viewers might find a pattern emerge from such statements, and from that a suggestion as to a theme; others, though, may well feel it is just part of a random moment, and no matter how profound or resonating the statement, find it as disposable as a non-sequitur.

Was there ever supposed to be a context for such said things? Godard did have a point early on as to what his film was about; originally the title was going to be Tarzan vs. IBM, but for obvious reasons needed to be changed. And it’s a solid concept, the idea of humanity maintaining itself in the face of technology run amuck, one that had been done in more structured ways many times before; the more enchanted viewer might claim the emotions improvised on set are the real message relayed as opposed to the spouting the actors try to get out.

The actors were certainly tested, especially the principals for various reasons. Constantine had made a career of playing Lemmy Caution, a pre-existing character created by Peter Cheyney, in seven prior films in France. In all of those, Caution was a dashing ladies’ man who was quick with a quip as he dealt with the bad guys in a light, breezy manner.

Seeing him here as a world-weary and tired, bitter cynic, who when he shoots his way out of danger seems cold and ruthless as he does it, put an end to his work with the character for years; audiences familiar with those films were not willing to see him back in that cycle after this turn.

As for Karina, her divorce from Godard was granted just before production began on the film, yet she remained the lead. The scenes of Natacha haltingly rediscovering humanity through love, which saves her after Caution disables Alpha 60 by blasting his way through the city with gunfire, one feels her ambivalence about having to fight to find the emotions to get the words out.

In this context, her declaring “I love you” as a means to break free from Alpha 60’s programming feels like Godard trying to revive what was left of his relationship with his leading lady, by forcing her to say that at a critical point in the story.

Original French theatrical poster

What keeps the viewer watching, the strongest pull, is Godard’s shots. While the film is supposedly set in the future on a distant world if the “script” can be believed, he makes the most of shooting everything in a rain-slicked Paris at night in the most modern buildings he could access.

The look of the film, the aesthetic that gives us a genre piece through a noir lens, is striking, and as noted above certainly influenced even if indirectly other works like Blade Runner.

Not to mention its other influences, including loaning its title to the German synthpop band Alphaville:

And yet, at the end there’s a sense as one watches the film that maybe Godard was acting a bit too much like Alpha 60 himself…

Film poster for US release

As Alpha 60 plans on bringing its vision to life through forcing words and concepts to adhere to its version alone, at the expense of those who have grand imaginations, one wonders if Godard in proclaiming his piece a science fiction film was using the tag to reprogram the viewer as well.

Could calling Alphaville an SF film force us to look at his effort at allegory in a way that a more mundane classification might not have? Was labeling what would have been a more pedestrian Cold War film takes place in another galaxy a way to get more people to buy into it?

What’s telling is that the film is considered a masterpiece in its use of genre elements, mainly by people who hate genre films. In a film where the theme is the power of weaponized ideas, calling a film with just the suggestion of genre elements a “science fiction film” is like using armor piercing bullets for maximum effect on the target. Excessive, perhaps, but efficient in insuring that his vision would grab the audience by trying to open their minds wider than they might have been.

In insuring that words have only the values that Godard declares they have, he’s left with a work of art that you can take or leave, and also a proof of concept as to what Alpha 60’s plan would look like in real life, which is devastating to behold as you watch it at work…

NEXT TIME: Of course we can make it better; add a little color, throw in a soundtrack, what could go wrong…?

About James Ryan 113 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…