Michael Benedikt  Selected Criticism & Other Prose

[ New Page, posted later 12/03. Much Modified 1/2/04 ]

On Jean-Luc Godard's film 'Alphaville' (l965)


Note: Full title of film is 'Alphaville: Lemmy Caution's Strange Adventure'
Film stars  Anna Karina  as Natasha Von Braun  &  Eddie Constantine  as Lemmy Caution.

Anna Karina & Eluard book

Anna Karina with Eluard Book

An earlier version of  this Essay appeared in Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology (E.P. Dutton & Co., l968)
About 2/3 of revised edition of essay at site so far

Alphaville & Its Subtext In The Poetry of Paul Eluard

Many critics who've written about Alphaville over the years since its release in l965 have remarked on--among other things--its more up-front & in-your-face subtext levels.  That is to say, they've duly noticed as is apt (1) the film's many references to 1960's Pop Art on the one hand, and (2) pulp fiction (sci-fi and detective fiction) on the other. Those references appear particularly at the start of the film in statements which hard-boiled-detective type, gun-toting central character Lemmy Caution makes which recall utterances of characters in pulp fiction or in comic-books. Whether exclaimed or spoken as flat statements, some of those utterances are accompanied by comic-strip-type like balloons such as can be found in the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, a leading 1960's US Pop Artist who's now considered a leading US 20th century painter. The tie-ins of this l965 film with with both Pop Culture & Pop Art are indeed apparent--but there's a whole lot of other sub-text going on beneath that Pop-inspired surface!

It's often been said that Godard's films--even when compared to the creations of French filmmakers as thoughtful as his 'New Wave' contemporaries--are uniquely concerned with ideas. With a thinker of Godard's depth, that means of course concerned not only with ideas up front, but also with ideas in layers. Godard's reputation as a thinker, coalesced by the time his playful, poignant, popular success Breathless was released in 1959, also suggests to me that--having looked at Pop-related levels (1) and (2)--one ought to look further and dig deeper. There's gold down there, I think. Not only is additional subtext located on level (3), but I  believe that the driving force behind Godard's startlingly rich film called Alphaville, is located down there too. Alphaville's subtext is in part literally text--text from the poetry of French Surrealist Paul Eluard, readings aloud from whose work occur at various points in the film and allusions to whose work abounds in it. Additionally, that relatively unexplored level (3) contains concepts which link Alphaville to Godard's other early films--as well as to concepts which relate to his thinking and value-system in general, and ideas which are key to his work starting with his early work.

The third level I'm referring to relates to Godard's feeling for Poetry. And specifically, in the instance of this French filmmaker, to a feeling for the trenchantly lyrical, visionary ideas of French Surrealism--the literary/art movement whose philosophy and iconoclastic literary productions brought new fire to both French poetry and world poetry starting in the mid 1920's; & whose influence continued throughout the 20th century & into the 21st century as well. In addition to creating poems, paintings, and other works of art which have political implications in terms of their longing for accelerated patterns of change, Surrealists often sought literal political involvement. That kind of territory is also visible to anyone looking at Godard's life and work, including Alphaville.

* * *

Who is the film's hero Lemmy Caution and what does be represent? We learn early on in the film that he's the fourth in a star-crossed line, secret-agent successor of Dick Tracy, Guy Leclair (Flash Gordon); and just after them, & just before Lemmy Caution, a fat little man named Henri Dickson. Caution's been to sent from the “Outerlands"--lands so truly outlandish from the perspective of Alphaville, a place where freedom is unknown, that they might as well be located on another planet. Caution's been sent to spy on Alpha 60, the giant computer complex which governs a monstrously unearthly, yet somehow also all too-earthly city created by Professor Von Braun and his fiendish science. (The reference to World War II German rocket scientist Werner Von Braun, who later worked on post-war projects for USA, is we believe deliberate. Lemmy Caution has a history, too. A hard-boiled character with same name, and also played by Eddie Constantine, appears in a series of earlier French films--detective films. But in the Alphaville context, the name Lemmy Caution takes on a deeper meaning, perhaps even giving this advice re coming to terms with either Alphaville or any place like it: "Let me wise you up & caution you against all this").

When Caution's quest finally leads him to his last living predecessor, Dickson is spending the night with, & as it turns out also his last on, one of the robot-prostitutes (aka "Seductresses") of the vast, liberty-extinguishing city. Dickson gasps out his last breaths and somewhat mysterious words: "Lemmy... conscience... conscience... destroy... make Alpha... 60... destroy itself... tenderness . . -- save those who weep." A certain familiarity with the leading tenets of Surrealism--as well as a certain capacity to play connect-the-dots--can do much to explain those and other of the more enigmatic utterances in the film.

From beneath Dickson's pillow, Caution extracts the dead man's pillow-book--a battered volume of French poetry called Capitale de La Douleur. What is Natasha Von Braun--the fiendish Professor Von Braun's very own daughter, who Caution manages to enlist as his guide to the city of Alphaville--doing afterwards at various intervals in the film, reciting selected passages from that book ? Why as if in exchange for her own invaluable guidance, has Caution introduced Natasha to that particular book? What was Dickson doing reading that sort of thing in the first place? What does all this mean?

Capitale de La Douleur (The Capital Of Sorrow, 1926) is perhaps the best-known book of poetry by Paul Eluard, who is one of the founders of the French Surrealist movement launched in the 1920's. Eluard is, with Robert Desnos one of Surrealism's leading lyric poets and also one of the most engaging 20th century French love poets. Love, & the transforming power of Love--particularly erotic love but not limited to erotic love--is at the core of & some might say at the heart of,  Surrealist doctrine. (Andre Breton,  poet and leading theoretician of French Surrealism, proposed that centrality in his First Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 & then in later writings such as--to name only one example of many--his 1928 novel Nadja. As we learn early on in the film, the central problem in AIphaville is that nobody except a few misfit & seemingly impractical poetical types (who like Henri Dickson live in "condemned sectors") is doing any living in, much less dying of, love. "What is the privilege of the dead?" giant computer Alpha 60 asks Caution in its hoarse, electronic voice during one of several interrogations. "Not to die any longer," replies Caution. Meaning, according to Surrealist doctrine--which in effect cites dying of love as a prequisite for living--not to live any longer, either.

The city of Alphaville is a nightmarish place for many reasons--perhaps the chief of which is because it's a city (a City-State, as ancient Greeks termed it? an entire Nation? a world?), where the privilege of the dead has been usurped. Hardly anybody is doing much dying there, for which one prepares by--in the first place--living. The title of the book Eluard published just before Capitale--which title appears onscreen in small font on the back of the edition of Capitale de La Douleur which Natasha holds up while reading from it--succinctly expresses that belief. Eluard's pre-Capitale book is entitled Mourir de ne pas Mourir (Dying Of Not Dying, 1924).  What could be more apt than that Henri Dickson, dedicated reader of Eluard, should both literally & figuratively, die both for & from, Love? What could be more appropriate than the relentlessly pedagogical Lemmy Caution--by introducing Natasha Von Braun to Capitale de La Douleur & by encouraging her to read it--also begin to teach Natasha (who in addition to being a very attractive young woman with unforgettable eyes also happens to be none other than the daughter of Alphaville's founding father), the meaning of the word Love. For how else after all, is she going to learn about it?

* * *

The city's spine-and-spirit-chilling slogan--initially seen by Caution when he drives into the city limits from The Outerlands--is "Alphaville: Silence - Logic -Safety - Prudence." Those purely rational, calculating, left-side-of-brain values could not be more precisely the opposite of values which one of Surrealism's major patron saints--the later nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud--recommended when as a corrective to the limitations of  logic, he called for "A systematic derangement of all the senses..."--an idea refined in Breton's rather exquisitely-written yet nonethleless more or less systematically mind-boggling 1924 First Manifesto of Surrealism. (The leading figures of Surrealism, far from being merely misfit or impractical poetical types, were rather good at integrating both left sides & right sides of brain. Which is, we've had many occasions to observe in passing, a trait seldom to be found in so-called "tough-minded" left-side-of brain types--or in the humanoid computer who rules the city of Alphaville).

If Caution is, as I think he is, the perfect Surrealist person (that he isn't an literary intellectual but a hard-boiled, super-practical gun-toting Private Eye type, is precisely the raison d'etre of Caution's personality--we should remember that the Surrealists always spoke about Surrealism expressing itself in "actions" as well as in art-works such as poems), then Alphaville is the perfect anti-Surrealist city.  Surrealists--Eluard in particular--often speak of going forward to the light (enlightenment). Alphaville is a black-&-white film. Godard maximizes the so-called 'limitations' of black & white film-stock to bestow upon the city a relentlessly stygian, hellishly dark look relieved only by reflections from substances such as formica, plexiglass, aluminum and chrome; or by clinically white rooms filled with florescent glare. The citizens of Alphaville--as in any Dictatorship including those Democracies which obfuscate by doublespeak, & in which there are vast gaps between theory and practise & between lofty Constitutional Charters & the relentlessly grinding actualities of everyday life as decreed by local & other authorities--are literally "kept in the dark." Concepts such as freedom or happiness have not only been discarded, but have become invisible. (Enough has been made of Godard's re-invocations of the shadow-strewn, dimly woozy world of Hollywood detective film & "Film Noir" we trust, for us not to have to additionally emphasize those stylistic roots in this context). The city of Alphaville is above all else dark because as Godard evokes it in the film, it's a place built out of the stuff of anti-belief. It's a place where Nobody Has A Clue--except perhaps, for denizens lacking imagination who only have a single clue: how to assure, in a highly monitored world, bottom-line physical survival via an absolutely unprotesting and even unthinking, silent conformity.

* * *

An aside (we're attempting to avoid footnotes here): In our computer-era times especially and given the benefit of decades of hindsight, Godard's been criticized for taking a tack that's seemingly sentimental re technology in this 1965 film about a futuristic world dominated by computers.  Those powerful gadgets which--as long as we control "PC's" which indeed remain "personal"--mean for so many of us access to information we might not otherwise easily get, or even acquire at all; and opportunities to redistribute that same or other information, and freedom from a whole range of restrictions of that kind. And yet ordinary caution suggests I think, that we consider the fact that all the returns are by no means in, re that subject yet. As we know, legislation is regularly proposed worldwide which would permit greater State control of things which many people consider "personal"--computers & Internet being particular targets. So that, long-term, Godard's sentiments may yet prove to have been both instinctively and intellectually correct. The mainframe computer which rules Alphaville is dangerous not because it's a computer and because computers are inherently nasty, but because it's either a computer In The Wrong Hands or a computerized databasing device which Frankenstein-like, has taken on a life of its own--and caution suggests at least to me, that inevitably the 21st century is going to see more of that..

* * *

In Alphaville, Godard makes enough direct, even blatant references to Surrealism to encourage us to think that he's proposing Surrealist perspectives specifically, as curative to the kind of Consciousness Without Conscience represented by places like shadowy, obfuscating, enlightenment-blocking Alphaville. For in addition to being what one might call because of its seamlessly dictatorial, spying regime "a sick place," Alphaville is also a rather sickening place. In the gloom-shrouded, claustrophobic city of Alphaville all those who've remained alert to either the more tender values which have traditionally sustained humankind, or alert to the value of human ingenuity in seeking some means of escape, are in one way or another murdered. (A particularly memorable example of which is the execution, in a swimming pool, & performed by acqua-suited Seductresses--actually mermaid-types straight from a Hollywood water ballet reminiscent of those of Esther Williams in the 1950's--of non-conformists who've somehow survived a shooting by a firing squad at the tiled edge of the pool. Indifferently, if somewhat decoratively, the upstarts are finished off anyway by a bevy of water-nymphs with knives, performing with serene efficiency as if in a water-ballet).

After Caution attends a relatively slow extinction--that of Dickson, who chooses to kill himself over at least some version of love, rather than trying to live totally without it--he attends more rapid executions. During one of them, we hear quotations from Eluard as we witness the execution--i.e. murder--of two men. After being lined up prior to being shot, the condemned fling out their last words. The second is most emphatic. He shouts out a paraphrase of the Dickson-Eluard philosophy: "Listen to me, you normals! We see the truth that you no longer see. This truth is, that there is nothing true in man except love and faith, courage and tenderness." The first proposes a somewhat more cryptic formula: "In order to create life, it is necessary simply to advance in a straight line towards all that we love." That line is later reiterated during a reading aloud of Eluard into which the ever-pedagogical Lemmy seduces Natasha:

And because I love you everything moves--
One need only advance to live, to go
Straight forward towards all that you love
I was going towards you
I was moving perpetually into the light

Natasha Von Braun's education in the nature & meanings of love will center upon the word spoken twice by Dickson in his death-bed speech: "conscience." That key word also turns up during the Natasha's recitations, when she reads aloud from Eluard's Capitale:

We live in the limbo of our metamorphoses
But that echo which runs through all the day...
That echo beyond time, desire and caresses keeps asking...
Are we close to, or far away from our conscience....

After Nastasha's entranced recitations are done, how far we've come from the references to Pop iconography and pulp fiction which some have taken to be at the heart of this film! Godard's Pop-culture referential pranks following the opening of Alphaville, which partake of the high-spirited playfulness to be found in much of his early work, contrast with the subsequent seriousness of the proceedings--so that when the underlying seriousness of Godard's purpose begins to emerge, it may almost shocks us. We're apt to listen almost in disbelief to the evocation of the Humanistic values which increasingly dominate the film as it unfolds--prepared for by what turns out to be a key  event in the film: the moment when Caution obtains from beneath the pillow of the deceased Dickson, the Eluard edition.

Brief paraphase of "Author" theory of filmmaking, to which Godard has contributed much & to which he subscribes: The Director controls the whole show.  As the film proceeds it's as if Godard himself--having created Alphaville, the forbidding City of anti-belief via scenes of horrific darkness disorientingly highlighted by florescent urban glare--then set about raising the consciousness or "conscience" behind the sheer visual force of the opening of the film, ascending to visions which contradict the benightedness of Alphaville or of any place like it. In many ways, Alphaville still tells a contemporary "Cautionary" tale.

[To Be Continued ]  [Top]

Earlier version of essay appeared in Jean-Luc Godard: A Critical Anthology (E.P. Dutton & Co, l968), Ed. Toby Mussman.
  © l968 Michael Benedikt. This Webversion © 2004 by Michael Benedikt.

Anthology also has Benedikt's  translation of Godard's Scenario for Godard's l961 film   A Woman Is A Woman.

for New online edition of Scenario please click image   
Karina & Belmondo in 'A Woman Is A Woman'   Anna Karina & J.-P. Belmondo in 'A Woman Is A Woman'

This Alphaville site's listed among the comprehensive Godard links at  Cinema=Jean-Luc Godard=Cinema

Michael Benedikt is a Contemporary US Poet who has also written much literary criticism, art criticism & occasionally, film criticism. Together with theatre critic George E. Wellwarth, he's Edited, co-Translated, & written Introductions for 3 anthologies of 20th-Century European plays: Modern French Theatre: The Avant-Garde, Dada, & Surrealism (E.P. Dutton, l964); Post-War German Theatre (Dutton, l967); and Modern Spanish Theatre (Dutton, l969). He's also the editor of Theatre Experiment: American Plays (Doubleday, l967), which like the European play volumes, also has Intros by Benedikt to individual works included therein. Further Info on Benedikt's theater interests & activities, & some related poems, here.  Benedikt is a former Associate Ed. of the mass circulation art magazines Art News and Art International, for which he reviewed art exhibitions for some years. His literary criticism has appeared in Poetry, The American Book Review, & elsewhere. Anthologies of poetry in translation which he's edited & written Introductions for are The Prose Poem: An International Anthology (Dell/Laurel, l976); and The Poetry of Surrealism (Little, Brown & Co., l974). He also translated most of the Surrealist poetry in the latter volume, which besides Eluard, includes Desnos & Breton.  Benedikt is also a former Poetry Editor of The Paris Review--his editorial selections are represented in The Paris Review Anthology (Norton, l990).
        Benedikt has published 5 collections of poetry: The Badminton at Great Barrington (University of Pittsburgh Press, l980); & with Wesleyan University Press: Night Cries (prose poems, l976); Mole Notes (prose poems, l971); Sky (l970); and The Body (l968). His work appears in circa 70 anthologies of US poetry. Benedikt taught Literature & Creative Writing as Visiting Prof. at Bennington, Sarah Lawrence, Vassar, Hampshire College and Boston University. A graduate of NYU's Washington Square College & Columbia University, he lives in Manhattan.

Additional Info at About.Com

'The Compleat Michael Benedikt: Poet Laureate of the Net'

E-mail: benedit3@aol.com


First draft of this New Page posted later 12/03


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