Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (the young director’s ninth offering in little over six years) opened the proceedings at the recent New York Film Festival. Partly because of Godard’s position as a panjandrum of the avant garde, and partly because the film had been enormously touted overseas, it was awaited with interest. At Philharmonic Hall, for the majority of the audience, the interest, alas, evaporated. There were, to be sure, scattered cheers, and some controversy: “A deadend,” said Pauline Kael; “brilliant,” wrote Jonas Mekas. Others wondered whether or not Alphaville was truly pop art; no one, I think, wondered whether it was art. I intend to deal here with Alphaville and Godard at some length, and then in the next issue of The New York Review discuss the rest of the Festival fare.
As the credits of Alphaville disappear (and they disappear pretty fast), we see Lemmy Caution, agent extraordinaire, arrive out of The Late Show, with his gat, his trench coat, his Ford-Galaxie, and enter a technological lotus land. Soon zigzag signals (auto-route du Sud, auto-route du Nord), neon-lit iconography (E = mc2), and similar fluorescent terrors slide balletically across the screen. Against such daring decor (the city of tomorrow which is really the city of today—actually it’s Paris), Eddie Constantine, the star (fuse the features of Edward Cianelli and Buster Keaton with those of Jack Hawkins and you’ve got him), looks over the dehumanized inhabitants. Eventually, in carefully measured disgust, he snarls, Mutants. It’s a revealing moment. For Alphaville, like all of Godard’s work (and I’ve seen it all, except the unreleased Les Carabiniers and the just-completed Pierrot le Feu), resembles nothing so much as scurrying mutations—or more accurately, hybrid-cinema.
Thus Alphaville‘s official genre is the comic strip and science fiction (vide the Madison Avenue sub-title “Tarzan versus IBM.”). Unofficially, in theme, technique and/or gimmickry, Alphaville more than haphazardly suggests Lang’s Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse, the anti-utopian novels of Orwell and Huxley, varying aspects of Cocteau and Kafka, including Orson Welles’s version of The Trial. As examples, there’s the demonic, authoritarian scientist, Professor von Braun, the new man of intellect, the dictator of Alphaville, whom Lemmy, the archaic man of instinct, must confront and eventually kill; along with an atmosphere of despondent, sometimes chirpy, functionalism (“Yes, I’m fine, thank you, Sir”), incantatory rumbles, colliding jump-shots: glassy expanses, microphones, labyrinthine stairs, beacons (chillingly composed, incidentally, by the apparently indispensable Raoul Coutard)—all elements, it is true, which Godard characteristically plays against, rather than plays up.
In a well-known Cahiers du Cinéma interview, Godard’s method is interestingly illustrated. A propos of Breathless, his first feature and probably his best, Godard states: “I wanted to depart from the conventional story, and remake, but differently, everything that had already been done in films.” Or, speaking generally: “I improvise without doubt, but with material that dates from way back.” He wasn’t kidding. Godard meant, of course, material …