Top Fifty Films of the 60s — Number Thirty


#30 — Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
“Once we know the number one, we believe that we know the number two, because one plus one equals two. We forget that first we must know the meaning of plus.” These are the words of Alpha 60, the sentient computer that serves as overlord of the title metropolis in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 French New Wave touchstone Alphaville. In just one of many deviously clever abstractions dispensed by the villainous conglomeration of chips and circuitry (“Everything has been said, provided words do not change their meanings, and meanings their words”), but it also nicely sums up Godard’s deconstructionist cinematic worldview. There’s not a single element of narrative filmmaking that shouldn’t be questioned, broken, inverted, spun around, drained of meaning (unearned or otherwise), painted over, stripped to the bone and held up for ridicule. In taking the elements that other directors strove to keep invisible and making them gleam with purposeful obviousness, Godard wasn’t just trying to reveal the man behind the curtain. He was offering explication of the craft that went into making the fabric of the curtain in the first place.

As opposed to some of Godard’s other film experiments, Alphaville explicitly pulls from the exceedingly familiar. Eddie Constantine had played tough guy secret agent (or detective, depending on the story) Lemmy Caution at least seven times previously, but I’d wager that most of those efforts were far more conventional. Godard’s use of the stern-faced tough guy, draped in a trench coat and topped by a fedora, calls further attention to the philosophical oddities swirling around the film. Similarly, the sci-fi trappings of the story are contrasted against the general lack of signifiers that this could be taking place anywhere other than modern-day Paris. It’s all artifice anyway, the film seems to argue, so why put a lot of extra time and effort into concocting faux futuristic set dressing when it’s not really necessary to perpetuate the game of pretend that’s inherently agreed upon between creator and audience? The supposed rules can shift in any way that Godard chooses.

There’s a plot to Alphaville–a fairly complex plot, even–but it’s secondary to Godard’s restless intellectual exploration. Meaning is fluid and the passage of time has a strident relentlessness. Addressing the latter topic, Lemmy takes Polaroid pictures throughout the film, the technology of so-called instant photographs proving inadequate in the task of capturing the present. By the time the bulb’s flash has faded and the image begins its process of being permanently imprinted onto paper, the present is already past. That’s also what the medium of film is doomed to be, a rendering of that which has already happened, no matter how urgent, modern or indeed futuristic a story might be. “Time is like a circle which is endlessly described.” That’s straight from the computer too. It’s an oracle of futility, describing the embedded shortcomings of art through the framework of imperfect human understanding. It’s simply another example of Godard being Godard, explaining that the bicycle doesn’t really exist even as he rides it. He can assemble all the pieces, put them together in a manner that recalls countless other films and yet throw up his arms as if it doesn’t matter in the slightest. And it’s a blessed joy to watch.

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