Leave it to Jean-Luc Godard to make a movie set in outer space that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the average space movie.
Godard’s 1965 film Alphaville, subtitled A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution, takes place in the eponymous metropolis, the capital of a galaxy, at some undefined point in what was then the future. To reach it, secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), a resident of “the Outlands,” must travel through space — by driving a Ford Galaxie, naturally enough. Godard makes no effort to depict this improbable interstellar journey; it’s merely one of the film’s numerous absurdities, perfectly in keeping with its anachronistic protagonist.
With his trench coat and his fedora, his weathered countenance and his cigarettes, Caution appears to have driven into this futuristic scenario entirely by mistake. He’s neither a typical science fiction hero nor a secret agent in the James Bond vein; on the contrary, he looks as if he was intended for film noir. Indeed, he’s shown reading The Big Sleep at one point, and his narration contains some decidedly noirish musings: “Yes, it’s always like that. You never understand anything. And one night, you end it in death.”
Caution was, in fact, not created by Godard but by a British policeman-turned-author named Peter Cheyney, who wrote about the character (originally an FBI agent) in ten novels published in the 1930s and 1940s. Beginning in the early 1950s, American actor and cabaret singer Eddie Constantine portrayed Caution in a series of popular French films. The Lemmy Caution of these movies is “a no-nonsense, happy-go-lucky womanizer” according to MUBI’s Adrian Curry; Godard’s version of the character is something quite different, a much more jaded man, and significantly rougher in appearance. Richard Brody’s biography of the director explains: “One side of Constantine’s face was heavily scarred, and in his prior films, he was usually slathered with makeup; often directors just avoided filming his scarred side. Godard, however, allowed no makeup, used harsh lighting, and filmed Constantine from any and all angles, revealing the actor’s face in all of its craggy humanity.”
This “strange adventure” (which must have been especially strange to any viewer expecting a standard Lemmy Caution movie) sees the character sent to Alphaville on a mission to hunt down Professor Léonard Vonbraun (Howard Vernon), inventor of the death ray, and either bring him back to the Outlands or liquidate him. Vonbraun, exiled from Nueva York in 1964 (and known in those days as Léonard Nosferatu), is the man behind Alpha 60, a powerful, gravelly-voiced supercomputer that acts as a policymaker for the city. “The task of Alpha 60 is to calculate and project the results which Alphaville will subsequently enjoy,” the chief engineer (László Szabó) tells Caution, and the computer itself proclaims, “My judgment is just, and I am working for the universal good.”
It may sound positive, even benevolent, but Alpha 60 — and, in consequence, Alphaville as a whole — runs entirely on logic, and there’s no room for anything that doesn’t fit into that system: art, love, conscience. Foreigners must either assimilate or die, by suicide or by execution. While attending a so-called gala, Caution witnesses a group execution held at a swimming pool; one of the condemned is there merely because he cried when his wife died — deemed an illogical act. Those who do comply, the “normals,” are essentially brainwashed, robbed of their humanity and their individuality. They’re forbidden from thinking about the Outlands; they can only use certain approved words, listed in an ever-shrinking dictionary they refer to as “the Bible”; and, in a running joke, they keep politely thanking Caution for asking how they are, despite the fact that he never asks.
One such obedient citizen is a young woman named Natasha (Anna Karina), who happens to be Vonbraun’s daughter. The authorities have ordered her to stay in Caution’s service during his stay in Alphaville (he’s supposedly there as a journalist), and although she’s done this job many times, this particular visitor awakens something new in her — or, perhaps, something old and forgotten. Caution, the unlikely science fiction hero, is equally unlikely as a romantic figure, being a gruff middle-aged man given to bursts of violence. (After shooting a stranger in his hotel room, he’s asked why he did it. “I replied, ‘Because I’m too old to argue. So I shoot. It’s my only weapon against fatality.'”) Still, for all of his flaws, he is unmistakably human.
Apart from a few futuristic touches, such as the small wireless transmitter that serves as a telephone in Caution’s hotel room, Alphaville itself looks more or less like the 1960s France in which it was shot — many then-modern settings, to be sure, but nothing that seems to belong on another planet. (Oddly enough, if the movie does have a certain otherworldly quality, it’s due in large part to the fact that it’s in black and white.) The familiarity of this alien city helps to reinforce the story’s relevance to reality, the importance of its warnings; according to Brody, Godard “said that Alphaville was ‘really about the present,’ of which the film’s presumptive ‘future’ was really just a projectio ad absurdum of what he saw occurring in the world in which he lived.” There are allusions to the Cold War (“We are mastering a science so fantastic that the old American and Russian control of atomic force will seem pathetic,” Vonbraun boasts), allusions to Nazism. In an elevator, Caution sees a woman with a number tattooed on her forehead, then glances at a button labelled “SS”; later, Alpha 60 describes the normals as “a race superior to ordinary men, whom we have almost eliminated.” It’s only logical — only logical, only a kind of cold mathematical equation that has no genuine understanding of the people it affects, much less any compassion for them.
“Listen to me, normals,” a man about to be executed addresses the crowd of onlookers gathered at the swimming pool. “We see the truth you no longer see. The truth is that the essence of man is love and faith, courage, tenderness, generosity and sacrifice. The rest is the obstacle created by the progress of your blind ignorance.” Lemmy Caution may not be the most obvious embodiment of these ideals, but he’s willing to fight for them, and that means everything.
Brody, Richard. Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Metropolitan, 2008.
Curry, Adrian. “Movie Poster of the Week: Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville’ and the films of Lemmy Caution.” Notebook. MUBI, 3 March 2012. https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/movie-poster-of-the-week-jean-luc-godards-alphaville-and-the-films-of-lemmy-caution
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