Alphaville: a visual fight for freedom


If you’re any kind of fan of Robert Rodriguez’s acclaimed, neo-noir Sin City (which, let’s face it, you are) you will know that there is another glorious visual-feast on the way. If you are a fan of those films, which you are, you should then want to know where Rodriguez’s inspiration came from – where did this noir business begin?

Before the neo-noir movement in the cinematic timeline, there clearly had to be film noir. Primarily described as crime dramas that emphasise cynical attitudes and sexual motivations with low-key black and white visuals, the film noir era is generally known to have occurred from early 1940s to the late 1950s. And what better first film noir film to look at than the 1965 French Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution) by acclaimed director Jean-Luc Godard.

Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) speaks to the sentient supercomputer Alpha 60, in  Jean-Luc Godard's critically acclaimed "Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution" ("Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution"). Issues of individualism and the repression of emotion, poetry, ad the arts are dealt with in the film. (Photo: CueOnline/Sean Black).
Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) speaks to the sentient supercomputer Alpha 60, in Jean-Luc Godard’s critically acclaimed “Alphaville: A Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution” (“Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution”). Issues of individualism and the repression of emotion, poetry, ad the arts are dealt with in the film. (Photo: CueOnline/Sean Black).

The film follows secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) who originates from what is only known as “the Outlands.” He comes to the city – Alphaville – in attempt to search for another secret agent who has gone missing and to, hopefully, capture or kill the creator of and mastermind behind Alphaville, Professor von Braun (Howard Vernon).

What we see when Caution enters Alphaville is a (disturbingly familiar) dystopian society where society is ruled by a sentient supercomputer, Alpha 60, which was designed by von Braun. The technocratic dictatorship thrives on logic and has eschewed concepts that Alpha 60 has deemed unnecessary, illogical, and ideals that (it believes) hold back humanity.

These ideals include things such as free thought, love, emotion, and poetry; any sign of that throughout the city is dealt with at an extreme level – what jumps to mind is Alphaville’s dictionary-bible, or encouraging the replacement of ‘why’ with ‘because’, or a man being executed because he shed tears when his wife died.

That emotion was deemed weak and rooted out by the supercomputer. The inhabitants of Alphaville are mindless drones and represent the product of a society devoid of art; a civilisation of inhumanity, and alienated society. The automated society is scarily resonant, even almost 50 years after its release.  Living in an increasingly digitised and media-saturated society, the film hits a little bit too-close to home because it deals with issues of Individualism in a modern world.

Alphaville theatrical release poster.
“Alphaville” theatrical release poster.

The film encourages and promotes the ideals that the city forbids; it fights for a renaissance of the arts in a society that values only logic and cold calculation.

The resonance of Alphaville becomes uncanny and scary because it does not overreach its boundaries. There is a feeling that this type of dystopian future, where art and expression are not condemned, per say, but perhaps seen as infantile or counter-productive to efficiency.

Alphaville does not predict a Skynet-esque future but rather uses Alpha 60 as a metaphor for reluctance to indulge in free thinking, philosophy, and the arts – something which is arguably happening in our contemporary setting.

Alphaville is typically noir in its setting, sound, design and images, and is a visual feast for the viewer – with flashes of images representing regime and logical science/mathematics throughout; as well as images of quotations from French poet Paul Éluard to act as opposition to the regime.

The film ends with Caution killing von Braun and destroying his supercomputer through the use of poetry – something that Alpha 60 cannot comprehend with logic.

As mentioned, issues of individualism are dealt with in the film; the concept of the individual self has been lost to the collect citizens of Alphaville, and this is the key to the computer’s destruction and the symbolic ‘freeing’ of the citizens.

To reinforce this notion, the final scenes of the film show the salvation of Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), Caution’s love interest, being saved by uttering (and comprehending) the final words: “Je vous aime” (“I love you”) to Caution. This signifies the enlightenment and freeing power that emotion, free thought, and the arts have.

The film is a classic piece of film noir as well as an overall, resounding success by Godard; the film is wholly seductive and enticing. And if there was any doubt as to whether this is a noir film or not, Caution, when asked by Alpha 60 what he likes most in the world, expresses the undeniably cynical: “money and women.”

– Sean Black, CueOnline