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.

Chapters in Edited Anthologies

Of the ten sources here, only three, Easthope 1997, Anshen 2007, and Woolfolk 2008, are chapters included in anthologies that do not deal specifically with Godard, but instead discuss the film in the context of the genres that it engages with: dystopian cinema, Italian neorealism, and science fiction, respectively. The remainder are largely devoted to Godard’s oeuvre alone. Benedikt 1968 and Bochner 1968 appear in the same critical anthology of Godard’s work and are both concerned with Alphaville’s engagement with realism. Brody 2008, Martin 2004, Stojanova 2014, and Wood 1967 are included in edited volumes devoted exclusively to Godard. Cournot 1972 is somewhat of an oddity, but it is included because it is an authoritative source for the often remarked fact that Godard shot Alphaville largely in darkness, and that much of the resulting film was therefore unusable.

  • Anshen, David. “Alphaville: A Neorealist Science Fiction Fable about Hollywood.” In Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema. Edited by Laura E. Ruberto and Kristi M. Wilson, 91–110. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007.

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    Analysis of the film as a critique of the “culture industry” as theorized by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, understood through its stylistic and thematic references to Italian neorealism.

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  • Benedikt, Michael. “Alphaville and Its Subtext.” In Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Toby Mussman, 213–220. New York: Dutton, 1968.

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    Discusses the way that the film engages with surrealism.

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  • Bochner, Mel. “Alphaville or the Death of Dick Tracy.” In Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Toby Mussman, 206–212. New York: Dutton, 1968.

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    Analysis presented as a series of quotes from various theorists that reveal the film’s relationship to realism.

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  • Brody, Richard. “Alphaville: ‘The Capital of Pain.’” In Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard. By Richard Brody, 223–236. London: Faber & Faber, 2008.

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    An account of the making of the film. Includes interesting reference to the relationship between the film and Georges Bernanos’s book La France contre les robots.

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  • Cournot, Michael. “A Leap into Emptiness: Interview with Suzanne Shiffmann, Continuity Girl for Alphaville.” In Focus on Godard. Edited by Royal S. Brown, 46–49. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

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    Only brief references made to the film, but an original source for facts about Godard’s filming techniques.

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  • Easthope, Antony. “Cinécities in the Sixties.” In The Cinematic City. Edited by David B. Clarke, 134–136. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

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    Brief analysis of the film in the context of an assessment of cinematic representations of dystopian cities. One of the few analyses that references Alphaville’s connection to Blade Runner.

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  • Martin, Adrian. “Recital: Three Lyrical Interludes in Godard.” In For Ever Godard. Edited by Michael Temple, James S. Williams, and Michael Witt, 262–267. London: Black Dog, 2004.

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    Discussion of Godard’s use of the poetry of Paul Eluard in Alphaville.

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  • Stojanova, Christina. “Jean-Luc Godard and Ludwig Wittgenstein in New Contexts.” In The Legacies of Jean-Luc Godard. Edited by Douglas Morrey, Christina Stojanova, and Nicole Côté, 127–142. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2014.

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    Short analysis of the film in the context of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy.

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  • Wood, Robin. “Alphaville.” In The Films of Jean-Luc Godard. Edited by Ian Cameron and Charles Barr. Introduction by Ian Cameron. London: Studio Vista, 1967.

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    Close reading of the film, concentrating on its mythological subtexts and contradictions.

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  • Woolfolk, Alan. “Disenchantment and Rebellion in Alphaville.” In The Philosophy of Science Fiction Film. Edited by Stephen M. Sanders, 191–205. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

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    An analysis of the film through its intertextuality with other science fiction classics. Includes a discussion of Lemmy Caution as a “camp protagonist.”

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Discussions in Books about Godard

Alphaville is often briefly referred to in books concerned with Godard’s life and oeuvre, but most concentrate on his better-known productions. Dixon 1997, Silverman and Farocki 1998, Sterritt 1999, and Wiegand 2012 are all included here because they include relatively sustained discussions of Alphaville as a part of monographs concerned with Godard’s work in general. Monty 2006 is an unpublished doctoral thesis that assesses the film among other dystopian texts that expose the anxieties of modernity.

Journal Articles

Surprisingly, only one of the essays listed here, Roud 1965, is specifically concerned with the film’s production, notably Godard’s filming technique and his use of sound. Bouhaben 2015, Jones 2017, Kasdan 1976, Maclean 1977, Ramsey and Gruber 2008, Thomas 1966, and Utterson 2008 all subject the film to readings that explore its cultural resonances, philosophical influences, and literary subtexts. Darke 1994 is specifically concerned with Alphaville as an urban film. Bochner 1968 is an interpretation of the film by a well-known artist in the context of the Paris uprisings, while Brown 1996 is a reassessment on the occasion of the film’s release on laserdisc. The subsections below contain articles that make comparisons with other Godard films or discuss Alphaville in other generic or disciplinary contexts or alongside the work of other directors.

Articles That Assess Alphaville alongside Other Godard Films

In these three articles, Alphaville is employed alongside other Godard films to explicate specific themes in his work. Babula 2012 makes use of it to reveal Godard’s developing political sensibilities, Madan 2010 is concerned with emotional resonances and audience reception, and Thiher 1976 examines Alphaville’s pop art references in a discussion of Godard’s relationship with the culture of postmodernity.

  • Babula, Ryan. “The Politics of Pre-political Godard: Alphaville, Made in USA.” The Cine-Files 2 (2012).

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    An analysis of Alphaville and Made in U.S.A. as examples of films that engaged with French politics despite being made prior to Godard’s more overtly political period, post-1968.

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  • Madan, Anuja. “The Language of Emotion in Godard’s Films.” Cineaction 80 (2010): 60–68.

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    Examines the film alongside Week End (1967) as examples of the way in which Godard utilizes the vocabulary of film to manipulate the emotional responses of the audience and interrogate the relationship between emotions and social structures.

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  • Thiher, Allen. “Postmodern Dilemmas: Godard’s Alphaville and Two or Three Things That I Know about Her.” boundary 2 4.3 (Spring 1976): 947–964.

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    An exploration of how Godard employs the motifs of pop art to expose the perpetual self-referentiality of postmodern culture. Alphaville is examined alongside the later film Two or Three Things That I Know about Her in the context of their ironic examination of both urban living and the language of high culture. Reprinted in Thiher’s The Cinematic Muse: Critical Studies in the History of French Cinema (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979), 180–198.

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Discussions of Alphaville in Contexts Other Than Godard’s Oeuvre

Hilliker 2000 and Vince 2016 discuss Alphaville alongside productions by Chris Marker and Jacques Tati, respectively, while Hensman 2013 analyzes it as an example of the way Nouvelle Vague directors politicized the urban environment. Schrijver 2005 appears in an architectural journal and is interested in the film as an example of science fiction films that critique modern urban planning. In a similar vein, Shaw 2008 discusses the film alongside The Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999) as an example of how science fiction problematizes the relationship between architecture and the body. De Bruyn 2003 is an analysis of Bochner 1968 (cited under Journal Articles).

Online-Only Resources

Alphaville is not substantially represented in webzines and blogs. However, Jones 2014 is one of the few essays that is concerned with exploring it from a production perspective. Sarris 1998 and Scovell 2013 are both concerned with reading the film as a critique of the film industry, though from somewhat different perspectives, while Wells 2016, Thomas 2015, and Thompson 2014 discuss it in terms of its generic influences and intertexts. Williams 2011 is a “critic’s choice” appreciation of the film, and Gaspar 2015 and Grant 2015 are appreciations on the occasion of the film’s fiftieth anniversary. Geilinger 2016 is a video in which Anna Karina remembers her experience of working with Godard on the film. Yoshioka 2013 is an undergraduate essay, but one that does a good job of assessing Alphaville in terms of critical theory.

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