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 way back in his past; but Godard’s past is largely a jumble of all the films he has seen, all the books he has read, with dollops every now and again from a rather deep well of personal eccentricity. The result, then, in Alphaville as elsewhere, is always something strangely individualistic, utterly contemporary, and yet for all that, riddled with déjà vu, cultural echo chambers, a kind of deliberately outmoded sleight-of-hand.
Take the spunkily staged, quasi-satirical execution scene near the swimming pool; it seems a typical Godardian invention, and proves a high point of Alphaville. Then one recalls the bravura nightmare sequences from John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. (And Godard, perhaps it’s worth noting, is far from a Frankenheimer fan.) More important, since it occupies so much space, both in a narrative and philosophic sense, there’s that outré computer, with its bull frog tones, surrounding Lemmy like Big Brother, enunciating the organizational principle (garbled bits, I take it, of Lupasco and Jacques Ellul), interspersed with a recurring litany: “We record, we calculate, we conclude…” Now where, out of so “futuristic” a concoction as Alphaville, does the derivation lie? Of all places, in The Infernal Machine. The exultant Sphinx: “…I wind, I unwind, I calculate…I winnow, I knit, I plait…” Later, more Cocteau: nonentities hugging walls, moving in a tortuous dance down halls. Orphée’s descent through hell.
Finally, Lemmy’s mission accomplished (“Are you returning to the Free World or not?” No, answers Braun. O.K. Bang. Bang.), Lemmy sweeps up Natacha, the scientist’s brainwashed daughter, an crotogene, played with somnambulant grace by Anna Karina, and zooms past the funereal boulevards, throwing everything, except myth, to the winds. For Lemmy, it suddenly appears, represents Orpheus, and Natacha is Eurydice. And here, in the concluding stretch, Godard effects one of his little “touches,” an engaging switch. Lemmy tells Natacha not to look back, and while he speaks the camera focuses only on her, and remains so till fade-out. The tragedy of Orpheus, you remember, was to glance compulsively at his beloved and thus lose all. The mood is further strengthened when Natacha, fumbling with a half-awakened lingo, asks Lemmy’s help, who replies: “You got to make it on your own, baby.” And then, haltingly like a child, she says: “Je…vous…aime.”
Now, whether or not Godard meant the above interpretation remains thoroughly open, for about Alphaville in particular and Godard’s career as a whole, ambiguity hangs like a noose. On the one hand, Alphaville’s message is unexceptional: Man is becoming more and more controlled, “the slave of probability”—a Sunday supplement sermon. On the other hand, Godard’s expository syntax—its ruptures and mock-macabre fragmentation—places events, actions, motives everywhere and nowhere. As with so much of the later nouvelle vague, the audience, in short, is the author. “Were they laughing or crying?” the old worrisome playwright once asked. “Laughing.” “All right, it’s a comedy.”
All right, so perhaps Alphaville is a comedy, a comédie noire. Certainly, Lemmy Caution is a scream. He kills and he speaks of la conscience. He slugs it out and lugubriously intones tendresse. A seemingly monosyllabic slob, who values only “gold and women,” when asked about his inter-galactic journey, his travels through space, without batting a lash, Lemmy quotes Pascal. Alone with Natacha, the American tough introduces her to Eluard’s Capital de la couleur; under interrogation, he mumbles, “mon semblable, mon frère.” Between recitations, Lemmy conquers the city of invincible logic, holding forth with nothing less than his own beautifully built-in illogicality.
No doubt, a spoof is intended, an outrageous irony. Still, the irony boomerangs. For when Godard isn’t being loony, he’s awesomely solemn, ranting again and again against the “conditioned response.” Yet Alphaville itself is so loaded with referential razzle-dazzle that any cinéaste must lap it up like Pavlov’s dog. At one point the heroine is called Vampyr (Dreyer); a copy of The Big Sleep rests in close-up. And Akim Tamiroff (what casting!) portraying the legendary sleuth, Harry Dickson, now drunk and defeated, eulogizes past Alphaville martyrs—Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon. Only Lemmy, it seems, was able to do what the other barnstormers couldn’t.
Why? Is Lemmy Godard? Is Alphaville a post-adolescent fantasy? Or is it really “a film of social criticism” which the French critic Jean-Louis Bory claims in Arts “casts a penetrating look at today’s civilization”? I think we can dispense with Bory and look more closely at Godard, who never likes “to look too closely at anything.” What have all the Godard heroes and heroines in common? “Feeling” or “impulse.” What are they up against? Those traditional romantic bugaboos: growing old, losing face. In Le Mépris, Bardot wrapped in her favorite towel, mourns soured domesticity, and yearns for the good days when she and the hubby made it sans “thought.” Nana, the prostitute, in Vivre sa vie, wants to “just live.” In Breathless, Belmondo, the hood, apostrophizes the elemental: Killers kill, squealers squeal. In the superb finale, gunned-down, betrayed by Miss Seberg, he looks up, one champ saluting another; “You really are a cunt,” he says, and the girl, already slightly bored, turns to the camera: “I don’t understand what that means.” Similarly Charlotte, the chic bourgeoise, moves like a cool breeze through The Married Woman going from Auschwitz to adultery, from lyric involvement to languid withdrawal. While the student-revolutionary of Le Petit Soldat, driving into Geneva for a mésavemure, muses: “The time for reflection is over; now is the time for action.”
But for all the Godardian protagonists “the action” is really only in some old film, some book, some poem. From Breathless to Alphaville, everyone plays a game, and then a game within a game. In Breathless, Apollinaire is dubbed on to the sound-track of a Western. Charlotte and her stud watch Resnais’ concentration camp documentary, Nuit et Brouillard; later they gambol through Racine. And Belmondo and Seberg nuzzling under the bedsheets—aren’t they just imitating the Paul and Elizabeth of Les Enfants Terribles?
And what about Godard? He presents Le Mépris as an hommage to Viaggio in Italia. But there’s little of Rossellini in it; much more of Antonioni and Aldrich. Vivre sa vie is dedicated to Dreyer; its true inspiration, I’d say, is Bresson’s Pickpocket. Godard calls Le Petit Soldat a “witness to an epoch,” to Algeria or Spain. But the hero’s deadpan political aria: “I love France because of Joachim du Bellay and Aragon. I love Germany because of Beethoven. I love America because of her fast cars…” sounds as loftily ludicrous as Dubedat’s death-bed crescendo in The Doctor’s Dilemma: “I believe in Michelangelo, Velasquez, and Rembrandt…”
“Behind the theater,” says Godard, “is life, and behind life, the theater. My point of departure was the imaginary and I discovered the real; but behind the real there was the imaginary.” And so forth and so on. Surely it’s no wonder Godard is the idol of the everything-up-for-grabs generation.
Still, when all is said and done, when one has itemized so much of Godard’s intellectual and artistic trumpery, how can he be dismissed? Besides being the most prolific of the nouvelle vague, he is without doubt the most “possessed.” Completely infatuated with films and with film-making, that is to say with “romance” or “escape,” Godard imparts that infatuation to us—or at least, to the young. (As one of his confrères said: “On ne choisit pas le cinéma, on est choisi par lui comme 99 per cent des gens qui ont entre 15 et 40 ans.”) Thus, however downbeat the subject, however nihilistic the newsreel effect, there is about everything Godard handles (or mishandles) the aura of an adventure, an odyssey.
Godard works with nothing but clichés (the thriller, l’amour fou, slapstick or revenge, a Grimault cartoon); then he presents a particular cliché as la condition humaine, then he parodies the condition, then he becomes rhapsodic. Superficially realistic, Godard’s films are in fact nothing but dream-states; his appeal, his magnetism lies in his utter subjectivity. Against the background of Dada and Surrealism, or of Hollywood in its hey-day, Godard’s innovations, in themselves, aren’t much. Yet when the trio of Une Femme est une femme steps out of character, it seems somehow exhilarating, in a way almost novel, even though, years before, Shirley Booth in The Matchmaker, Olivier in Richard III and The Beggar’s Opera, did much the same thing. But Godard does it with a difference: instead of conscious “asides,” Godard makes it all spasmodic, impudent, “sloppy.”
Moreover, his characters (modern literature’s old bores, but drained of psychological precision) seem, within Godard’s neo-primitive contexts, oddly touching and fresh. Drenched with nostalgia, for la vie simple, for some penny-arcade paradise, yet cramped in that clanging monotony known as “urban living,” Godard’s men and women are people with nothing left to experience except what they can catch on the wing: a chance encounter, a bit of glory, some mystère. Sweet, daffily drifting Charlotte lives only for “the present”—it prevents her from going nuts. And even Lemmy knows the score: “Not why,” he keeps insisting, “but because.”
“Shooting and not shooting, for me,” says Godard, “are not two different lives. Making films should be part of life.” Actually, for him it is life. And it is just that which makes his three achievements—Breathless, and to lesser degrees, The Married Woman and Vivre sa vie—vibrant and moving, melancholy and suitably absurd. So, to conclude what has turned into a volte-face, let me say, whatever the unevenness, whatever the pastiche, Godard has what the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd loves to extol, the absolute charmes de l’amateurisme.
As for Alphaville—well, I’m afraid there the charm was a wee bit too thick, there it was becoming “professional.” I might add, if Alphaville is remembered at all, it will be remembered as the beginning of what looks like a new international trend. In Paris, François Truffaut is winding up his adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; Stanley Kubrick, in England, is preparing 0201—A Space Odyssey; and in Rome, Elio Petri is putting Marcello Mastroianni through his paces in some time-travel fantasia, about a land where murder is a status-symbol.
October 28, 1965