Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - Lemmy Caution - Natacha von Braun - Eddie Constantine - Anna Karina

1965, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

During his second interview with Alpha 60, Lemmy Caution poses a riddle to the computer:

Something which never changes, day or night
The past represents its future
It advances in a straight line
Yet it ends by coming full circle.

In the following scenes Alpha 60 unravels, throwing the city of Alphaville into chaos. Lemmy Caution assassinates Leonard von Braun and rescues Natacha as the city’s residents stagger around “like ants”, thrown off balance without the computer’s guidance.

What is there in those four lines that would destroy a supercomputer powerful enough to govern a galaxy? The riddle’s answer, as Lemmy Caution reveals later, is happiness, but what’s more revealing is why Alpha 60 can’t process the riddle. The movie does everything possible to help the viewer see why, and once we do, the entire movie unfolds into a philosophical argument as clear and logical as a film can make.

Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - Lemmy Caution - Eddie Constantine - interview - Alpha 60

Let’s approach this a roundabout way. What do the movie’s opening shots have in common with the riddle? A traffic light blinking on and off against a black background makes a good metaphor for the digital language of computers, which think in opposites: on and off, ones and zeros. Lemmy Caution’s riddle asks Alpha 60 to reconcile opposites – something computers don’t know how to do.

As it turns out, the entire world of Alphaville is reduced to stark opposites. After the blinking light is a mural of war and peace. Recorded voices label the interrogation rooms “occupée” or “libre”. People shake their heads “no” to mean “yes”. The city is split into North & South zones: one cold, the other hot. The high contrast and a slow strobing effect make everything dark or light. The soundtrack veers between loud and quiet. Negative film stock alternates with positive. Natacha tells a joke about a tiny man and a large man. Lemmy Caution swings a light bulb forward and back, Henri Dickson swings it side to side. “Ivan Johnson” joins quintessentially Russian and American names, and “Figaro Pravda” links reactionary and communist newspapers. Natacha says “le conscience” and Lemmy corrects her: “la conscience”. Leonard von Braun’s control panel has labels for heating and refrigeration. A car chase switches from forward to reverse. Lemmy Caution is old and ugly, Natacha von Braun is young and beautiful. The galaxy is split between Alphaville and the Outerlands. Alpha 60’s lecture at the Institute of General Semantics speaks of life & death, past & future, normality & abnormality, suffering & comfort, while the slideshow pairs images of woman & man, yes & no, exclamation point & question mark, why & because, 1 & 2, curves & angles, head & foot, x & y axes.

Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - neon sign - nord - north
Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - neon sign - sud - south
Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - opposites - slide
Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - opposites - slide
Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - arrow
Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - arrow
Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - Einstein - neon sign
Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - Einstein - neon sign

Underpinning the movie is the premise that opposites are a false simplification of reality. Nature is not made of opposites – men are not the opposite of women, “why” and “because” are not truly opposite, and happiness and sadness blend together and complement each other in real life. Opposites are a construct of language, and Alpha 60 is bent on controlling society through language. The dictionary is the bible in Alphaville, and language is constantly being stripped and simplified into something ever more abstract.

Godard’s original title for Alphaville was Tarzan vs. IBM, but instead of casting Lemmy Caution as the opposite of Alpha 60, he became a mediator between opposites. The movie features a few conspicuous traffic lights, which normally hold opposite signals for “stop” and “go”, between which is a middle light for “caution”. The secret agent’s name thus points to Godard’s synthetic approach, his willingness to reconcile opposites, embracing paradox out of respect for the complexity of reality. Lemmy’s first name also carries a double meaning, as in “lemme caution you….” Alphaville is a warning call against unsuspected forces that control us by simplifying our thought and language.

Lest anyone should suppose that Alpha 60 is some fantastical tyrant of the future, Alphaville is filled with allusions to contemporary geopolitics, especially the Cold War – the Soviet Union and United States, Werner von Braun, Enrico Fermi, Peking, atomic warfare, radiation, E=mc², etc. The movie’s argument about the stripping of meaning from language is not hypothetical, it’s an urgent attack on the oversimplification of thought that makes the Cold War possible. The movie addresses a world where powerful forces conspire to divide the world into opposite categories like capitalism vs. communism or East vs. West, pushing people into the comforting simplicity of extremist positions.

Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - Lemmy Caution - Eddie Constantine - negative image

Jean-Luc Godard shows a career-long interest in language and syntax, from the unconventional editing of Breathless to late films like Goodbye to Language. Anna Karina’s character in A Woman Is a Woman asks about word order in a sentence, and Les carabiniers shows how reduced forms of syntax can simplify people’s thoughts and prepare them to commit atrocities, just as Alpha 60 aims to strip meaning and feeling from speech. The computer’s voice sounds out of breath, and its name alludes to Godard’s first (alpha) feature, made in 1960, which is not surprising if we realize that Godard had, since at least 1962, regarded Breathless as a kind of juvenile fairy tale. It’s fitting that this breathless supercomputer would be named after a movie that in Godard’s view failed to capture the complexity and nuance of the real world.

Godard’s critique of Breathless continues in his next film, Pierrot le fou, a movie about the folly of trying to make art. Since Vivre sa vie and Contempt Godard had become increasingly skeptical toward “high art”, and this skepticism should help us to see why Alphaville, in spite of its philosophical ambitions, is so resolutely lowbrow in its storytelling. The rough violence and sexuality, the comic book style, all the genre elements, and the allusions to Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon (“Guy l’Éclair” in French) all represent an effort to avoid the trap of highbrow filmmaking.

Alphaville - Jean-Luc Godard - Henri Dickson - Lemmy Caution - Akim Tamiroff - Eddie Constantine

If Alphaville‘s intention were only to dramatize philosophical ideas on film, it would not be enough. Without an emotional context the movie would segregate meaning from life, much as the computer strips life from language. Alphaville does not try to trigger our emotions, but it gradually builds an emotional foothold that should lead to insight at the end. Throughout Lemmy’s visit we witness a world drained of emotion, where it’s forbidden to cry, to love, to behave illogically. Citizens of Alphaville take tranquilizers constantly, and when they betray, oppress, or kill someone they do it without anger or other emotion. Even appreciation is treated like a commodity – you can buy the word “thank you” from a vending machine. This dystopian picture is not meant to scare us, but rather to set the stage for the awakening of feeling in Natacha.

During the cab ride from the Institute of General Semantics to the Ministry of Dissuasion, Lemmy Caution says five times in a row that Natacha has the “voice of a pretty sphinx”. Alpha 60 is the sphinx of Alphaville, questioning all newcomers like the mythical sphinx of Thebes, and until the ending Natacha is like a pretty version of the supercomputer, giving voice to its propaganda. At the end she says “Je vous aime” twice, but at first her voice halts on the word for love (“a-aime”) the same way Alpha 60’s breathless voice always halts. When she repeats the sentence she finally speaks with her own voice, her breath flowing freely. Like so many citizens of the modern world, Natacha has been oppressed since childhood by an ideology that serves the interests of the powerful by simplifying her thoughts, numbing her feelings, and molding her in the image of a computer. The movie ends with the reawakening of her language, thought, and feeling – in other words, her humanity.


A Matter of Life and Death – Argument that world peace requires an end to oppositional thinking

Fever Mounts at El Pao – Use of language and abstraction to distance people from real life

Breathless – Alpha 60 alludes to Godard’s first film, made in 1960; the computer’s voice is out of breath

A Woman Is a Woman – Contrast between literal, abstract truth and the complexity of paradox and emotion

Vivre sa vie – Synthesis of widely perceived opposites; low culture put to a higher expression

Les carabiniers – Reductivist syntax reveals roots of conflict in the ways people think

Pierrot le fou – Critique of Breathless; Ford Galaxy; nighttime drive with Anna Karina; war on abstraction

Made in U.S.A – Reporter on a mission in a strange and corrupt city; similarity of city names; authoritative voice from a tape recorder; profusion of opposites; traffic light

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her – Transformation of Paris into a city of the future, Johnson/Jeanson; Natascha; galaxies

Weekend – Critique of oppositional thinking

Zabriskie Point – Argument against abstraction; similarity of vending machine & gag sign jokes; emotion saved for the end

Le boucher – Flickering indicator of occupied space; argument for embracing paradox