(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1965)


This is the text of a guest lecture given in the Fine Arts department of University of Sydney on 8 October 1986.

Jean-Luc Godard
is (to use the title of Bob Dylan’s song)
forever young. Don’t take my word on that; just look at almost any of his films, from almost any period of his career. Their energy; the near-encyclopedic mosaic of cultural mores from their time and place; their amazing montages of image and sound.

So far, up to the mid 1980s, Godard’s work (omitting the 1950s apprentice efforts) can be sliced up into five tranches. 1959-1966: Hollywood cinema (& Hollywood cinephilia) revisited, taken apart, remade, combined with all manner of other things in life, society and art. 1967-1969: A transitional period that takes us from La Chinoise (1967) to the fragments of the unfinished One A.M. in 1968 (it was patched together, sort of, by Richard Leacock & D.A. Pennebaker as 1 P.M. in 1971), via the spectacular auto-da-fé of Weekend (1967) and the increasingly impersonal One + One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968) – a sequence of Godard’sprogressive attempts to escape his own auteur status and merge into one or another collective body.

Then the more concrete actualisation of that authorless dream, between 1969 and 1972: the Dziga Vertov Group, ending with Tout va bien (1972). 1975-1979 marks a period of involution, characterised above all by video research: two TV series (of a sort) and several remarkable ‘laboratory’ films result. Lastly, the current period of the 1980s, inaugurated by Sauve qui peut (la vie) in 1980: a lyrical immersion (or re-immersion) in the ‘classics’ of art, music, literature, mythology … but with every Godardian discombobulation built in.

Alphaville appears during the fullest intensity of the first period, amidst A Married Woman (1964), Pierrot le fou (1965) and Masculin féminin (1966). A prodigious and prolific, full-tilt time for Godard. And still relatively compact and coherent, all of a piece – before the onset of the type of ragged self-demolition at work in Made in USA (1966), or the increased theoretical self-consciousness laid out in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967).

Beware, however, of the tendency to make any Godard film more coherent than it actually is. There’s a process of critical hallucination, a fannish-cultish intoxication you might say, to which Godard’s work is frequently subjected. Alphaville is especially inviting of, or prone to, this tendency. Why? Not only because it is endlessly replayed and re-cited – in music videos, for instance, where its kinship with Jean Cocteau is emphasised. It’s because of a more general culture-loop going on right now between the 1980s and the ‘60s.

Alphaville is taken these days as a fully integrated science-fiction vision or prophecy – in particular, a prediction of our postmodern age. It gets lined up, in this context, alongside Blade Runner (1982), for instance. In repertory cinemas such as Melbourne’s Valhalla, screenings of Alphaville are ritually preceded by a triumphant audio blast of the TV Superman credits: “Faster than a speeding bullet …”. The association makes some kind of sense to that hophead crowd!

To be a bit more precise on this point, Alphaville conjugates a number of elements – elements of cultural sensibility – that come to clinch the postmodern loop or circuit-switch. First, the evocation of a technological society – ruled, especially, by computers. Second, its overwhelming sense (common to several Godard films) of an eternal present unfolding: a present moment super-packed, coming apart, where there is felt meaning in the passing detail but never in a whole gestalt.

Third, a particular kind of humour, which Godard didn’t invent but was, in his time, well ahead of the coming tidal-wave curve: a flip attitude to violence, with tough guys like Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) from a cartoon/graphic-novel milieu talking poetry (this is a hyperbolisation of what, say, Robert Aldrich was doing in the Hollywood 1950s), and the spectacle of on-screen injury or death just thrown away as a gag (it’s all fake anyhow, only a movie … ). This all goes to the reigning description of Alphaville as a Pop Art film.

But on the reverse side of flip irony, vivid exaggeration and implacable aesthetic distance, there’s an undeniable surge of highly lyrical (and effective) Romanticism, nostalgia for an escape route via transcendent love … as we see in the concluding scene. This is another aspect that links to our scene of the ‘80s, where music-fashion-culture trends are willy-nilly labelled New Romantic – or even New Wave! – by magazines like The Face. There was even talk (from 1978) of a slated remake of Alphaville by Amos Poe to star Robert Fripp and Debbie Harry … an idea reportedly nixed by Godard himself. Thank God(ard)!

In an attempt to get away from such generalities – and related ones, like labelling Alphaville neo-noir, whatever that signifies – we should ask: what kind of project is/was it, really? We can begin from the assumption that Godard’s films always involve the shredding of a pretext (or multiple pretexts, as in Contempt [1963]). In this case we encounter: the pulp fiction detective hero, Lemmy; a succession of action-movie conventions, such as the function of a hero, a car chase, fight scenes … ; a very stark, deliberately unrefined approximation of noir stylistics, especially in the strict contrast/alternation between blinding light and sheer darkness (Godard found a way to use even footage deemed ‘unusable’ by his legendary cinematographer, Raoul Coutard); references to figures from ancient myth, including Orpheus, Oedipus and the Sphinx (computerised as Alpha 60); a selection of surrealist love poems by Paul Éluard; a generic ‘movie music score’, dutifully delivered by Paul Misraki and then literally cut to shreds by Godard (hunt down the soundtrack album, if you can, to discover what was actually composed by Misraki); and, finally, references to or evocations of silent cinema, especially classics of German Expressionism by F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.

The improvisational or impulsivist nature of Godard’s work, especially in this first period of his career, cannot be overemphasised. He always started from a loose plan – it would be impossible to get a production underway otherwise – but he protected his right to change it from day to day, sometimes taking a break for reflection (a method that did not endear him to industry-trained, professional crew members). He set great store on spontaneous invention, creative intuition, and what we Anglos (to the eternal amusement of the French) call bricolage – the sticking-together (on location or later in editing) of diverse, perhaps unlikely bits and pieces.

Dialogue (if any had been scripted, sometimes by his assistant Charles Bitsch as a ruse to placate producers) was often rewritten on the spot; pre-envisaged ideas of mise en scène could be altered at whim. Some actors responded well to his methods and others responded badly; but, somehow, they would be arranged in the fresco, and it would all go in. It’s this side of Godard that sometimes sees him aligned by (largely American) commentators – mistakenly, in my view – with the American Beat poets. But there’s more (Raymond) Queneau than (Jack) Kerouac in Godard’s dissolving-pot of formative influences.

To stick with the inevitable noir tag for a moment longer: in Alphaville we are light years away, stylistically, from what Orson Welles elaborated in Touch of Evil (1958) or The Trial (1962). Godard is not a classically organic filmmaker (I’ll return to this concept later); the effects he’s going for are often crude, messy, funky, excessive, misplaced – and very proud to be so. Particular fragments – like the lovestruck shots of dewy-eyed Anna Karina as Natacha – constantly pop out of the jolting, jarring progression of images and sounds.

Just take a good, unintoxicated look at the camera movements here: they shuffle and shudder and shake, there’s absolutely nothing smooth about them. Remember the testimony of Godard’s closest Vertov-period collaborator, Jean Pierre-Gorin: according to him, JLG frequently made movies because of a particular scene or detachable block-sequence within them – 10 minutes or so that was enough to justify the rest (tales of him ‘stretching’ scenes during the shoot to achieve feature length – by getting the actors to read aloud from books or newspapers, for instance – are legion). The traffic jam in Weekend is one anthological example, and (I suspect) the swimming pool scene in Alphaville is another.

Let’s put this another way: Godard has never wanted to simply, entirely tell a story, nor create the full-blooded illusion of a fictional world (a diegesis) – and I mean never! Sometimes his motivation for those eschewals has been loudly ideological (anti-Hollywood, anti-bourgeois illusionism), especially in phases 2 & 3 of his career; but I believe it is, more fundamentally, temperamental, an inherent part of the artist he is – he is just not drawn to that kind of storytelling in those kinds of make-believe, coherent worlds, either as a maker or as a spectator-critic. Just look at how he critiques his contemporaries like Chantal Akerman or Wim Wenders, and to their faces, no less: “Your film had one or two good images …”

In other words, Godard approaches the matter of representation – spinning a story, conjuring a world with so-called three-dimensional characters – in two very specific ways: either as a joke, or as a diagram.

The joking side is easily detected in Alphaville – it’s Godard at his most irreverently hip & flip. It’s clearly evident in the nitty-gritty depiction of violent action: rendered in static bursts of a guy in an Eddie headlock, or a body poised under a car about to roll over it. It’s the dead opposite of the fanatical, precise presentation of physical motion and action (however gruesome) in Jean-Pierre Melville. A gun, a bullet in the chest, a spray or stain of blood … as Made in USA will formulate this, it’s just colour (or shades of grey), just trick effects, nothing real, nothing to get hung about.

Likewise, the sexual content – Godard has always been quite prudish on this level – as we see in the odd groping of a woman (Christa Lang, later Christa Fuller) by Akim Tamiroff (a character actor from the Welles films cited). And there’s so much demented off-screen space stuff in Alphaville – Godard pushes as much material as he can into that never-never zone.

This brings us neatly to the question: but what is a diagram, exactly, in a cinematic mise en scène of real locations and flesh-and-blood actors, rather than in the mode of animation? Think of it as a sketch, or a skeleton: a scene emptied out – all that staging against bare, white walls in Godard! – of everything deemed to be the inessential clutter and clamour of verisimilitude, of ‘world building’. Who needs it? Martin Scorsese and a thousand other directors do, but not Godard.

With a properly reduced, diagrammatic scene, Godard can non-naturalistically simplify, in order to then imply or suggest large-scale connections between elements in his overall bricolage: the connection between, for instance, the Paris of 1965 and the imaginary space of Alphaville (the film is most famous, in its day as now, for creating no futuristic sets, using only what was available in the city as it stood).

It’s really quite incredible, and amazingly inventive, when you look at it: the back of a domestic fan signifies the guts of super-computer Alpha 60 (could one imagine a ‘tackier’, more amateurish, Z movie effect, as judged by industry standards?); neon signs and blinking traffic lights stand for an entire, mechanised society.

Again, insistently: what kind of film is this? To keep answering this in depth, we need to recognise the typical – and very complicated – work of Godard’s cinematic style, especially at the post-production stages of image-editing and sound-mixing. At this phase, more than any other preceding it (mock-scripting or even actual shooting), discontinuity and disarticulation rule.

Discontinuity between material elements of the film: the legendary jump-cuts between shots; violent ins-and-outs on the soundtrack (dig the ‘fake’ machine gun fire noise effect); the tiny fragments of music (three ‘dramatic’ chords) repeated over and over … I’ve mentioned lyricism in relation to romance, but there is also a lyricism of violence in Godard, all the way through to Prénom Carmen (1983) and Détective (1985): harsh soundscape, weird arcs of balletic/paroxysmic bodily movement.

Disarticulation: a game with visual cues in the prodigiously strange (sometimes comical) narrative space (Stephen Heath’s term) of the film. This is evident in the way Godard fools around with: into-camera looks as the basis for a shot/reverse-shot structure (in some scenes between Natacha and Lemmy); POV (point-of-view) shots (such as those involving Howard Vernon as Professor Braun) that change their function when repeated in the montage; the uncertain, unconventional status of insert shots (eg., a hand agitating still photos); the inclusion of what appear to be outtakes and test shots (a fleeting feature of the so-called ‘flashbacks’ in Contempt); dislodging the formal (as distinct from psychological) motivation of stylistic devices, often by way of a delaying mechanism – abrupt camera movements, cuts and inserts that the spectator cannot immediately place (such as Braun’s photo when it first appears).

The matter of motivation (in the formalist sense in which I’m using that term) returns us, once more, to the issue of the degree of coherence and organicity of Alphaville as an object to study and analyse. (I recommend reading V.F. Perkins grappling with this question in relation to Vivre sa vie [1962] in Ian Cameron’s excellent 1969 Movie/Studio Vista anthology The Films of Jean-Luc Godard.) To what degree can we value Alphaville in conventional aesthetic terms … or must we strive to grasp the film on its own terms, whatever we decide those terms to be? Virtually every Godard film poses this same challenge to us, in ever-varying ways.

I believe we must avoid the fashionable but finally rather useless stance of negativity – valuing the film for what it is not, or for what it refuses: anti-Hollywood, anti-illusion, Brechtian effects of distanciation, reminding active (not passive) spectators that they are watching a film (but is that really such a big deal, after all?) … This just won’t do, because then we end up saying the one, same thing for, placing the identical abstract value on, every single moment in every Godard film!

So, here’s the real challenge: in some way, for it to be a singular and unique film (and why else would we be talking about it or spending time with it if it were not that?), we should be able to see in Alphaville a specific expressivity, the formulation of relations (poetic, conceptual) internal to this film, and this film alone. Avoid, at all costs, simply affixing the dreaded label Godardian to all you see and hear in his work! (This goes for any auteur name turned into an adjective: Hawksian, Ruizian, Akermanesque, etc.).

In a more conventional film, the quality of organicity arises from the absolutely motivated, at all times relevant relation between style and content, the fictional story/world and its treatment. It’s a system of equal exchange: form creates content, and vice versa. This is what we mean by classicism in cinema – and it’s a great tradition, indeed. We find it in Touch of Evil, or Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), or even the jazzy-but-still-solid American remake of Breathless (1983) by Jim McBride – a film I champion, and love, even as (or because) it’s not especially ‘Godardian’!

Godard has always been in the business of upsetting the classical economy of film expression – but let’s not phrase that too negatively! Formal games or experiments can pop up at any point of a film; you can’t always find local, exact reasons for using this or that device. And hence a certain contract of interpretation, at least within the classical aesthetic regime, falls away.

But there is another option. Does Alphaville contain a looser but thoroughly poetic system of elements that float at various levels through the film and tie up in a certain diachronic formation? And, in fact, the film brushes up better, on this score, than many in the Godardian canon. This is one way to account for its enduring appeal, beyond the present postmodern fad. We can begin to approach this particular poetic system of Alphaville through a simple series of semantic oppositions (an approach which the film itself inscribes and encourages).

Logic & Control

Emotion & Impulse

Stasis & Death

Movement & Love




Straight Line

Secrecy & Amnesia


Artificial World

Natural World

Science ( = dead language)

Poetry ( = liberated language)



All these terms appear as both themes and formal motifs in Alphaville. When they coalesce at particular points, we encounter powerful, poetically charged and fully coherent/expressive moments of cinema – such as the ‘breakdown’ of the city staged in a building corridor. Here we can reach into the film’s own store-box of references for Éluard’s lines: “One need only go straight forward to love / I was moving toward you, I was moving perpetually into the light”. (16-year-old Godardians – I can tell you – send this to each other in hopefully requited love letters, yearning to find a fellow Godardian soul-mate on the receiving end!)

A strong side-effect of this poetic system: a reflection upon the medium of cinema itself. Or, as it gets called these days, reflexivity (not self-reflexivity, which is a redundant term: when you look in a mirror it’s going to inevitably reflect your self!). Once again, we should be careful not to turn this into a one-size-fits-all critical/analytical homily (one that can be extended, in fact, far beyond Godard’s œuvre). Reflexivity has to amount to more than simply ‘actively knowing you are watching a film’. It must be the core of a properly intellectual-philosophical reflection on the cinema medium.

So, in Alphaville, cinema is that flickering light amidst the darkness of a hall, forever swallowed up by blackness (the fades), containing darkness as its necessary material supplement in the small black interval between every frame and the next (to adapt to film the terms of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist approach) …

That’s why the film contains so many references to the marvellous, frail archaism of silent cinema; and why the big love scene has a great lyricism (but not overt eroticism): this love is (also) the love of cinema, this tender and ephemeral thing projected on a screen and vanishing there simultaneously.

Naturally, there are viewers who cannot arrive at this elevated level of Alphavillian appreciation. Why not? It’s understandable, within the contextual-historical terms I’ve set up today: reluctant spectators get hung up on the ever-hovering contradiction or dissonance between Godard’s Romanticism and his sense of flipness – that piece of his ‘modern sensibility’ that inevitably pulls us in the playful-cum-nihilistic direction of not giving a damn about anything much. For Romanticism needs conductors of feeling, and a genuine investment in creating them: some form of embodied characterisation (people on screen you can ‘identify’ with, whatever that may mean), a sustained mood, a coherent poetic drift …

Alphaville, ultimately, may well need its share of critical hallucination: that coherence is almost there, almost complete, but the film can, nonetheless, seem thinly stretched, a bit patchy in places (like every Godard movie – that’s the price of his impulsivism). Robin Wood argues this point in his 1960s account (also in The Films of Jean-Luc Godard).

Or, then again: maybe this is all a strategy on Godard’s part. His brilliance has always resided in his perversity – who else would promise to the world (and his producer) the career ‘comeback’ of a Breathless 2 and then deliver the bleak video-inside-film Numéro deux (1975)? – and his ever-renewed game-playing. He poses as Serious Romantic in order to turn Formalist Flipper; but then, when you think he’s at his least heartfelt (and most mechanical), he surprises and blindsides you with a mode of poignancy – in the combination of an image, a sound, a face, a gesture – that you never knew existed (a phenomenon that is especially striking in his 1980s work).

I started by suggesting that Godard has always been a little kid (of the polymorphously perverse kind!), forever young; he’s also always been a Wise Old Person, with more tricks still up his sleeve than we have yet to learn. You have to master the trick of perceiving those two Godards in the one, stereoscopic projection.

And, speaking of conceptual stereoscopy: as I was invited to give this talk today in the very room where Alan Cholodenko and Edward Colless made Film Studies at University of Sydney famous, let me add a final anecdote – lest history does not record it elsewhere.

In 1985, the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard was the chief curator of a huge, ambitious exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris titled Les Immatériaux. Alan and Edward (Ted) went and saw it together. It vigorously investigated new technologies, new ‘sensoria’ – but also set these in relation to the human body, and to nature (however we choose to define or understand that concept). Sound familiar? Godardian, even?

After the display of all the machinery and unfolding processes of image/sound-making, the exit-point of the Immatériaux show brought spectators back to a humble reality: a little bit of plant-vegetation life in a domestic clay pot. Alan and Ted stared at it on their way out; as they did so, Ted turned to his pal and commented: “Alfalfaville”.

MORE Godard: À bout de souffle, Hélas pour moi, Histoire(s) du cinéma 1A & 1B, For Ever Mozart, Soigne ta droite, Éloge de l’amour, Film Socialism

© Adrian Martin October 1986

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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