The Empires of the Future are the Empires of the Mind: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville”


Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Writer: Jean-Luc Godard

“Sometimes reality is too complex, for oral communication. But legend embodies it in a form which enables it to spread all over the world” -Jorge Luis Borges, and the opening words of “Alphaville”

At the midpoint of Jean-Luc Godard’s brilliantly weird “Alphaville,” our hero, the craggy special agent, Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), who is  a James Bond-type except with the personality of a cantankerous  uncle, is interviewed by a supercomputer, known as Alpha 5.  In the world of “Alphaville,” Alpha 5  helps rule society through probabilities and rational logic, thus eliminating useless human fallibilities like emotions and love. During the interview, Alpha 5’s questions become increasingly odder and diffuse, but Caution always has just the right answer for Alpha 5: 

“Alpha 5: Do you know what illuminates the night?

Caution: Poetry

Alpha 5: What is your religion?

Caution: I believe in the inspirations of conscience.”

As a lover of poetry myself, our hero’s answers and the entire tone of “Alphaville” fits very well into my worldview. After all here is a movie that is a reaction to the B.F. Skinner behaviorist worldview of the 1950s and 1960s, and a celebration of that often irrational, very messy and irrational way of life known as human emotions.  It is a strange film, no doubt. As I was thinking about writing this piece, I found myself struggling to describe “Alphaville.” The best I could come up with is this: Imagine a film directed by a poet who loves film noir and Humphrey Bogart but is also fascinated by science fiction. And imagine that this same filmmaker is also blessed with amazing technical skills like Kubrick but also also loves to engage in simple, sentimental emotions like Bresson or Fellini. That is as close of an approximation I can give to the experience of watching “Alphaville.”

“Alphaville” may be the most bizarre and narratively radical of Godard’s 1960s films, which is saying something. (He would of course get more politically radical in films such as “2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.”)  It takes place in the future where a secret agent from “The Outlands,” named Lemmy Caution, goes to the city of Alphaville, which is run by a computer called the Alpha 5, which has outlawed love, poetry and emotions among other things in order to create a more rational society based on probability.

Caution pretends to be a journalist from the “The Outlands” but his real goal is to infiltrate Alphaville’s society and track down the creator of Alphaville, Professor Leonard Nosferatu, who is known only as von Braun in Alphaville. Along the way he meets von Braun’s beautiful daughter, Natasha von Braun (Anna Karina) whom he of course falls for.

anna karina alphaville conscience

One of the great pleasures of watching any Godard film is its surprises. In “Alphaville” there are are so many silly, wonderful sequences that I watched the whole film with a grin on my face. In one scene Caution lights his lighter by firing his gun at it. In another people are executed for showing any emotion at a public pool in the midst of synchronized swimming display. There are long, poetic soliloquies (see the clip below) and long takes focusing on Anna Karina’s lovely face. (At the time Godard was married and very much in love Karina, and it shows in this film. The camera lingers on her far more than anyone else in the movie. Not that I’m complaining.) 

The idea “Alphaville” attacks, that our emotions and impulses are detrimental, is a very old one.  Plato, who believed very much in a rational ideal of a Utopian society, for instance felt poetry should be banned from society. Plato felt that poetry was pernicious as it was connected to the mysterious and non-rational and there by encouraging mankind’s weaker impulses. This idea has stuck around in one way or another for the past 2,500 years, including in the theories of B.F. Skinner I mentioned above. My worldview obviously would argue the opposite, that it is in fact our emotions and irrationalities, which leads to art whether painting or poetry, is one of few things that makes lfie worth living at all. There is a great scene in “Alphaville” where Natasha reads poetry from Paul Eluard’s “Capital of Pain” that illustrates Godard’s argument. Having grown up in a rational society, Natasha does not understand what many of the emotional words mean. But she feels something. She just doesn’t quite understand what that is. It is emotion bubbling like a brook for the first.

capital of pain alphaville

I’ve argued with many of  my more “rational” friends who seem to eschew human emotion as unnecessary especially when considering mankind’s greatest troubles.  But what Godard understands, and I happen to agree with, is the limits of rationality in the world of human interaction. To me it seems that everything that is supposedly rational whether it is the economics, poker or science, has a strong emotional component to it. It is just that our intuitions and emotions are much hard to explain and quantify than the rational arguments of economics  or the math behind a poker hand. While Freud has fallen out of fashion today’s world, his greatest insight is still valuable to understand “Alphaville.” Freud told us that repressed drives, especially the repressed sexual drives of the Victorian age in which he live, would manifest itself  in other ways. And the repression of the rational life “Alphaville” does find its escape often in violence.

I won’t give away the pleasures of the ending. But it seems to me that it is the perfect rejection of the world of probability, repression and rationality that the Alpha 5 computer represents. As Caution and Natasha drive away from Alphaville for the last time, she begins to speak. The words are unfamiliar to her, a group of words  she was always forbidden to say. Caution won’t help her, he says she must say it and feel it on her own. And Natasha does speak those beautiful, simple words before the camera fades to black.

It might be trite, and in a lesser movie, it would have been awful, but somehow it fits into this strange, wonderful film like the last piece of a long puzzle. The answer, Godard seems to be suggesting, has always been right under our noses. Maybe that answer is that abstract human word that we all desire but can never seem to grasp…

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