Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: For The A.V. Club’s Artificial Intelligence Week, we’re focusing on sentient computers and computer programs, a.k.a. our future overlords.
Playfulness has always been one of the most endearing—if easily overlooked—qualities of Jean-Luc Godard’s work. In recent years, especially, it’s become easy to miss the French filmmaker’s sly sense of humor, obscured as it often is by the sheer density of images, information, and polemical outrage he packs into his essayistic features. That’s probably why casual Godard fans received last year’s Goodbye To Language so warmly (it has a dog and fart jokes!) and why they tend to gravitate to the “cooler,” simpler films he made in the ’60s. Alphaville, Godard’s ninth feature, isn’t as popular as Breathless or Contempt, to name two other milestones of his New Wave period. But it’s surely one of his funniest, most entertaining movies—a stylish pastiche whose typical headiness doesn’t detract from the joy Godard plainly takes in mashing together disparate genres.
Noir is the first of said genres to reveal itself, as Alphaville opens with a secret agent (Eddie Constantine, reprising an iconic role he played in several earlier French thrillers) traveling to a shadow-drenched Paris, where he adopts the unconvincing disguise of a photographer on assignment. As it turns out, the city isn’t what it seems to be either: Paris plays not itself, but the futuristic backdrop of the title, a dystopian metropolis where all art has been banned, all displays of emotion are illegal, and logic reigns supreme. The ruler of this oppressive society is Alpha 60, an advanced supercomputer that lectures the populace through a citywide speaker system and in the guttural groan of a mechanical voice box.
As in much of Godard’s output, cross-medium references abound: Beyond the presence of a famous literary sleuth and obvious parallels to George Orwell’s 1984, the film additionally nods to Nosferatu, to Dick Tracy, to the poet Paul Éluard, and to real icons of science and politics. Allusions to the Holocaust—another of Godard’s reoccurring preoccupations—are also woven into the cultural fabric of the movie’s sci-fi landscape. There’s a lot to unpack in Alphaville, which could benefit—just as the director’s recent efforts could—from extensive footnotes. Yet the film is also something of an irreverent lark, riffing comically on the conventions of its entwined genres. One early scene finds Constantine’s character blithely activating his lighter with a bullet; later on, Godard stages a fight scene in pantomime, reducing it to a hilarious abstraction.
Most enjoyably, the movie operates as a kind of collision of archetypes, pitting a mythic existential gumshoe—romantic, unflappable, prone to poetically hard-boiled exclamations like, “I’m too old to argue, so I shoot”—against a beep-boop emblem of technological anxiety. There’s a retroactive significance to their battle of wits: Alpha 60 may represent 20th-century pragmatism taken to its nightmare (i.e., genocidal) extreme, but the machine sounds a lot like the mouthpieces of Godard’s modern movies; it speaks in loquacious, sometimes circular declarations. To that end, doesn’t the movie’s swaggering hero look like a perfect stand-in for the more accessible cinema of the director’s first decade? For whatever else it accomplishes, Alphaville works as an inadvertent dialogue, putting early Godard in conversation with the filmmaker he couldn’t have known he’d become.
Availability: Alphaville is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.