For all the kids who pretended their dad’s Chevy Tahoe was a spaceship. Dads, too.
The Film: Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 pop tour of a technocratic dystopia
The Potable: Four nightcaps of Legenda Moldovei Moldovan brandy
When directors make a first foray into genre pictures, there are certain elements they’re expected to touch upon. When Monte Hellman makes a Western, he puts Jack Nicholson on a horse. When Jim Jarmusch makes a vampire flick, he gives Tilda Swinton a pair of fangs. When Jean-Luc Godard makes a sci-fi film, however, he pretty much just keeps doing what he’s doing.
Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy (Lenny?) Caution stars Eddie Constantine and Godard regular Anna Karina. A genre hybrid, it includes several trappings of the film noir genre; the hard-edged anti-hero, the moody black and white photography, a hovering air of nihilism. But if I’m being honest, I didn’t realize this was also a sci-fi picture until the second half of the third act.
For you, dear reader, imagine watching The Royal Tenenbaums and only realizing during the film’s denouement that everyone hated Gene Hackman because he was actually an emotionless automaton. There are no teams, only I, Robot.
The film centers on our hero, Lenny, who travels to the galactic capital of Alphaville in search of a missing informant. The galaxy is governed by laws of logic, as dictated by a master computer, but Godard seems to have a complete disinterest in world-building. Shot in Paris, Alphaville is devoid of any futuristic set pieces and looks exactly like goddamn Paris. A lone crosswalk appears to be lined with high-tech lights embedded in the asphalt, but it could just be the rain or stickers. Our protagonist flies into town in a Ford Galaxy, but he’s actually just driving down the beltway in a Ford Mustang. The car doesn’t even have tailfins. There are no aliens, no neon-colored cuisines, and no bizarre hats.
Lenny tracks his informant to a rundown joint called the Red Star Hotel, the name being Godard’s only use of special effects. Its decor does not include lava lamps, available for just $6.95 at Walmart.
It’s slowly revealed that Alphaville’s powers that be have a slavish devotion to logic, and Karina’s character leads Lenny to a crowded natatorium, where a strange scene takes place. In this hyper-rational society, men are being executed for “behaving illogically,” but what’s rational about shooting people on a diving board and having synchronized swimmers retrieve their corpses from the deep end of the pool?
Lenny ultimately comes face-to-face with Alpha 60, the galaxy’s computerized overlord. Will we at last see effects worthy of the genre? A mainframe as unsettling as HAL 9000? Not exactly. Tightwad Godard’s computer is a pair of microphones attached to an air conditioning unit, a box spring, and the headlight of a Ford Galaxy.
It’s not just the production design that suffers, as Alphaville fudges traditional sci-fi lingo. It uses lightyears as a measure of time, not distance. A real amateur move. It claims Professor Von Braun will “bring victory to anti-matter,” which sounds very sciencey but doesn’t actually mean shit. The heroes ultimately flee through “intersidereal space,” which the internet tells me is a synonym for “interstellar,” but the internet didn’t exist in 1965, so I don’t know who told Godard.
What is the natural foil in any plot that features logic as the villain? Love and poetry, poetry and love, and in the end, Secret Agent Lenny defeats Alpha 60 with a good Rimbaud verse. He whisks his new lady love to the distant galaxy of New York, where they live happily ever after in a society governed by Crosby, Stills, and Nash and freewheelin’ vibes.
I’ve seen a lot of bizarre science fiction movies in my day. La Jetee, Zardoz, World on a Wire, Brazil, Space Jam, The Visitor, Event Horizon, Sleeper. I, for reasons beyond my control, saw Jupiter Ascending in theaters. But Alphaville may be the weirdest of them all, mostly because my memory is already confusing it with Breathless.
Verdict: need to rewatch, but Godard should also check out Blade Runner