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Analysis of Godard's Alphaville
French New Wave cinema emerged during the 1950s and was inspired by the criticism of Andre Bazin and Jacques Donial-Valcroze who helped to found Cahiers du Cinema. The Cahiers du Cinema helped to establish two filmmaking philosophies that would help to guide New Wave auteurs in the creation of their films. Additionally, New Wave directors would also establish a set of guidelines that would help to classify their films as part of the New Wave movement. Among the founders of the New Wave movement was Jean-Luc Godard whose films not only adhere to the guidelines of the movement, but also push the boundaries and allow him to use his films to explore politics, genres, and cinematic styles. Alphaville, released in 1965, not only follows the guidelines that were established by the New Wave movement, but also brings together the genres of film noir and science fiction to depict a dystopian future where machines have slowly dictated how people should function in society.
New Wave cinema adopted two principle philosophies that were advocated by Bazin and Donial-Valcroze in Cahiers du Cinema. These guiding principles advocated a rejection of the "classical montage-style" of filmmaking, instead promoting mise-en-scene, and also believed that the best films were an artistic expression of a director and would "bear a stamp of personal authorship;" this belief would later be known as the auteur theory (Phillips). In addition to these two philosophies, directors of New Wave films also incorporated several stylistic elements that would become definitive of New Wave cinema such as the use of jump shots, shooting on location, using natural lighting, improvising dialogue and plot, using direct sound recording, and using and filming long takes of scenes (Phillips). In addition to embracing these tenets of New Wave cinema, Godard incorporates traditional film noir genre characteristics and blends them together with science fiction to create the dystopian alternate world of Alphaville.
As a director, Godard embraced these philosophies and stylistic elements, all of which can be seen in Alphaville. For instance, mise-en-scene within the film helps to support the concept that Alphaville is a totalitarian or Marxist future. The mise-en-scene within the film has been stripped down and there are no obsolete objects placed in view of the camera. Only objects that have a purpose or use within Alphaville are mentioned or shown before the camera. The simplified mise-en-scene also help to give the film a sense of timelessness and add a touch of mechanical sterility. This mise-en-scene also helps to create a feeling of isolation and helplessness, especially when an individual is questioned by Alpha 60. While the film's costuming and props reflect the pop decor and mod style of the 1960s, there are several attempts at making the film feel futuristic from having centralized computers dictate what people can and cannot do to the technology that is used to control and monitor people.
In addition to utilizing mise-en-scene to establish his style, Godard also integrated his political beliefs into the film. In Alphaville, Godard is able to point to how Marxism can be a "logical solution to the crisis that [he] had been living throughout the sixties" (Thiher 949). In "Postmodern Dilemmas: Godard's Alphaville and Two or Three Things That I Know About Her," Allan Thiher contends that Godard sees Paris "as the crucible in which language is ground up, altered, emptied of meaning, and, finally, place in the service of totalitarian repression" (949). Furthermore, Thiher states "Godard believes that man's freedom is coextensive with his language's capacity for representation" (949). Godard's beliefs regarding language can be seen in Alphaville through his representation of the Bible. In the film, the Bible is in actuality a dictionary that dictates what words and beliefs are accepted by Alpha 60, Alphaville's central controlling computer, and helps to maintain control over its citizens by removing words that it deems to be unnecessary or contrary to its overall totalitarian goal (Alphaville). Language in Alphaville has become censored to the point that speech is awkward and distorted and has "come to be defined by comic strip language" (950). Alpha 60 seeks to remove ideas and words that it does not understand or cannot process, which leads to an extremely truncated lexicon. Moreover, this "comic strip language" is a censored attempt to emulate the fast-paced language that is often heard in American film noir.
Susan Sontag remarks, "one of the most striking features of Godard's work is its daring efforts at hybridization" (Sontag 236). This hybridization is best seen in the film's overall narrative and style. Godard employs many traits and characteristics that are definitive of American films noir of the 1940s and 1950s and science fiction dystopian fears. Alphaville shares an "iconography, visual style, narrative strategy, subject matter and characterization" that is commonly found in film noir (Spicer 4). Furthermore, like American film noir, Alphaville serves as a vehicle for Godard's social and political commentary and reflects his views on post-World War II France (20).
Traditionally, film noir begins with a criminal investigation during which the "hard-boiled detective" and the "femme fatale" are introduced. In Alphaville, the "hard-boiled detective" is Lemmy Caution who is on a mission to find a missing agent, capture or kill Alphaville's creator -- Professor von Braun, and destroy Alpha 60 (Alphaville). Additionally, Lemmy Caution is dressed in 1940s film noir fashion and sports a trench coat and fedora that are reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe detectives. The femme fatale in Alphaville is Natacha von Braun whom Lemmy Caution tries to get close to in order to bring down Alphaville's creator and Alpha 60. Natacha is Professor von Braun's daughter, although she claims to have never met him, and has previously worked as a programmer for Alpha 60; however, Natacha has become so indoctrinated by Alphaville's laws that she only knows and learns about what is allowed and quickly forgets anything that may spuriously be deemed illegal (Alphaville). While Lemmy Caution recognizes that Natacha is both an asset and a threat, he, like many hard-boiled detectives of film noir, aims to rescue the femme fatale. Although femmes fatales in film noir often do no survive or live past their involvement in the conspiracy that they are involved in, Lemmy Caution is able to disconnect Natacha from Alpha 60's control and whisk her away from Alphaville (Spicer 9).
In keeping with film noir tradition, Alphaville is set in a major urban city that is depicted as corrupt and morally ambiguous. In addition to being set in Paris, the film was also shot on location keeping with one of the tenets of New Wave cinema (Phillips). Paris's moral ambiguity does not lie within the city itself, but rather on those that follow Alpha 60's directives; it is demonstrated that there are people that will attempt to escape the regime of Alphaville, however it appears that the only escape from Alpha 60's directives is death, either through execution or suicide (Alphaville). Another characteristic of film noir that is depicted in the film is use of voiceover narrative to help to provide further insight into what is going on or has happened. Traditionally, voiceover narrative is provided by the detective, however in Alphaville, voiceover narration is provided by Alpha 60; this is used to demonstrate that the narrative should be understood only as the machine dictates it to be understood keeping with the totalitarian theme of the film.
Alphaville's science fiction attributes are derived from both its overall plot and narrative in addition to the technology that is used and mentioned within the film. In the film, Godard uses retrofuturism to bring together film noir, science fiction, and New Wave perspectives. Retrofuturism can be defined as the future as it is seen from the past and the past as it is seen from the future ("Retrofuturism"). In Alphaville, Godard is able to create this through his "pop vision of the present" (Thiher 949). These pop references, from detectives named Dick Tracy and villains named Nosferatu to his "futuristic" Ford "Galaxy," further help to emphasize the absurdity of the plot, yet present characters and concepts that are familiar to the audience. Retrofuturism is also seen in how technology is used. For instance, "seductresses" are programmed to perform a sexual function by being tattooed and conditioned, yet they are not depicted as being any sort of technologically advanced being, nor are they dressed futuristically, but rather are dressed in contemporary 1960s fashions (Alphaville).
Alphaville also has stylistic elements that are not commonly associated with film noir or science fiction, but rather are devices that are commonly found in New Wave cinema. For instance, New Wave cinema, and Godard, make frequent use of jump cuts and long shots as a function of the film. In the film, jump cuts are used during the chase sequence at the end of the film; this technique is visually jarring and helps to emphasize, visually, the impact that is felt when a car collides with another car…[continue]
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