Cinema and Media Studies Alphaville
by
Debra Benita Shaw
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0291

Introduction

Alphaville is Jean-Luc Godard’s only science fiction film. The film was made during his Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) period, and therefore before the more overtly political filmmaking of his years with the Dziga Vertov group. Nevertheless, in the film Godard makes skillful use of the conventions of science fiction, as well as those of the spy film and detective genre, to critique the culture of mid-20th-century France. Unusually for a science fiction movie, it contains few props and no special effects. Godard achieved the defamiliarization that marks the genre by filming in the streets of Paris, mainly at night and without any additional lighting. The “strange adventure” of Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) leads him to destroy a despotic computer, Alpha 60, by reading it poetry, but not before he has fallen in love with the mad scientist’s (Howard Vernon) beautiful daughter (Anna Karina) who, of course, he must save. Also starring Akim Tamiroff as the failed private investigator Henri Dickson, Alphaville references film noir and comic strips while also quoting the poetry of Paul Eluard and Jean Luis Borges, as well as Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy. As several commentators listed here have noted, Caution is Orpheus descending into the underworld to rescue his Eurydice, who must relearn how to communicate words of love. Although not as well-known as some of Godard’s other productions, Alphaville has nevertheless had considerable influence on the genre of science fiction film and still stands as a fine example of Godard’s craft and the potential of film to expose the alienation that lurks within the everyday life of modern cities. Somewhat surprising then is the sparse attention paid to it by science fiction critics. Alphaville won the Golden Bear award at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival.

General Overviews

Only three book-length publications currently exist that deal solely with Alphaville. Darke 2005 is the most comprehensive, assessing the film’s relevance to 21st-century audiences as well as its intertexts, both historical and contemporary, and including details of the film’s production and notes on the cast and crew. The Discussion Guide for Alphaville (Great Books Foundation 2015) is an online guide aimed at film theory beginners, and Whitehead 1984 is a straightforward reprint of the script with a useful introduction.

  • Darke, Chris. Alphaville: French Film Guide. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2005.

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    The only comprehensive book-length analysis of the film. Darke locates it within both Godard’s oeuvre and the history of cinema, and he includes a discussion of its use of postmodern pastiche to critique capitalism, as well as its dystopian representations of mid-1960s European cities.

  • Great Books Foundation. Discussion Guide for Alphaville. Chicago: Great Books Foundation, 2015.

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    Useful overview and guide to themes and techniques. Aimed at high school–level teaching, but also valuable for beginning undergraduates.

  • Whitehead, Peter, trans. Alphaville: A Film by Jean-Luc Godard. Rev. ed. London: Lorrimer, 1984.

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    English translation of the screenplay with an introduction by Richard Roud.

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