The Government is a Computer
In “Alphaville,” Godard turned a 1960 computer into a disorienting vision of the future.
BY CONNOR JONES
[This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue.]
IN THE MAY 6, 1965, edition of the weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, Professor Kauffman, a mathematician (that is the extent to which he is identified), and Dr. Jacques Sauvan, a computer developer, offered their opinions on the cultural insight of the new Jean-Luc Godard film, Alphaville. They both agreed that “the impoverishment of language and the simplification of syntax are real” and believed this could lead to the “robotization” of humanity. In such a society—a society of logic—art would be judged unserviceable. “By voluntarily reducing the consciences of men, by undermining education,” their jointly-written statement continues, “technocrats lead men to sanctify freedom, to accept ignorance, and even to equate freedom with non-knowledge.”
Who were these “technocrats” they spoke of? In the late 1950s and early 1960s, general purpose computers were becoming more and more common, especially in France. Machines Bull (now Bull SAS) was the leading French company, claiming more than 45 percent of the computer market at the time. (Bull’s competitors included SEA—Société d'Electronique appliquée à l'Automatisme—and a French affiliate of IBM.) According to a 1962 census by an organization called Datamation, a total of 112 computers had been installed in continental Europe by that year—three years before the release of Alphaville. Two thirds of these computers were in France, including Bull’s GammaET computer of the late 1950s and their innovative Gamma 60 “supercomputer,” first shipped in 1960.
“Alpha 60,” the computer governing system in Alphaville, is clearly a reference to this technology, and an opportunity for Godard to dramatize his concerns with the future of these computers—foremost being the loss of personal and artistic expression. “Everything has been said, provided words do not change their meanings, and meanings their words,” the Alpha 60 computer states in the film, a belief that has resulted in the computer rendering many words useless in the indefinite future in which the narrative takes place. As Chris Drake wrote in his 2005 book on the film, “A certain kind of futurism was clearly very much of the cultural moment, and attitudes towards it oscillated between uncertainty and euphoria.”
In Alphaville, Godard translates this uncertainty into a formal method. In an early scene in which the film’s main character, detective Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), enters his hotel bedroom with a “seductress,” Godard’s camera work renders cultural uncertainty as visual uncertainty. During the nearly two minutes before an assassin arrives there are only two cuts, and for most of that time the camera is placed in the room’s corner, opposite the action. When Caution first enters, the camera pans with him to the back corner, where he exits through a door. The shot’s focus shifts to the seductress as she prepares the bed and fluffs the pillow. As she walks around the bed, the camera pans to follow, and a second door becomes visible just as Caution reenters through it. We can see a bathroom sink through this door, and watch as the seductress stops at the sink before disappearing into a part of the bathroom out of view. The shot shifts its focus to Caution as re-enters the bathroom, stops at the sink, and then follows the path of the seductress. Caution and the seductress move from the bathroom to the bedroom and back, the only cut occurring when the camera begins to pan toward what would be a full shot of the bathroom, at which point a jump cut returns the frame to its first framing from the corner.
There are two important effects in this sequence. First, the camera is constantly shifting its focus between the characters, and even sometimes sits, stationary, to focus on empty space while we hear action off screen. The camera’s indecision towards who or what to focus on embodies, visually, the cultural unrest about the technology that is at the heart of the narrative. Second, we never see directly into the bathroom, where a major portion of the action of the sequence is taking place. We don’t know what the space looks like or exactly what takes place out of view there, and can only to use hints allowed us in the sound editing. Godard represents uncertainty about the future of humanity not through a depiction of technology, but through radical visual disorientation.
ALONG WITH THE growing ambiguity of the role of technology in the culture, there was also growing political unrest within 1960’s France. Godard, born in 1930, was older than the students who led many of the political movements. But when he was a teenager he’d found himself interested in the teachings of Jean-Paul Sartre, focused on inspiring artists to embrace the ideas of the far left and embody them in their work. (An excellent source on this period of Godard’s life is Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.) This political orientation has obviously had a large influence not just on Alphaville, but on all of Godard’s films. Those political beliefs, however, were greatly reinforced in the first half of the 1960’s, before Alphaville. For instance, in 1963 Cahiers du Cinéma hired a new editor-in-chief. As the de Gaulle government began to be further scrutinized and criticized, Cahiers decided to remove existing editor-in-chief Eric Rohmer and hire the more liberal Jacques Rivette. As Amber McNett puts it in her article “The Politics of the French New Wave,” this led the journal to move “away from aesthetically based Bazinian criticism [of Rohmer’s era] towards a more politically centered Brechtian model.” For Godard, the idea of a centralized right wing government was ultimately restrictive to the progress of not only the arts, but also humanity in general. This was similar to his feelings regarding computer technology—and thus Alphaville, in which the source of power controlling a restrictive government is not a person (de Gaulle), but a supercomputer: Alpha 60.
Again, however, Godard translates the political into the visual. An expert at creating claustrophobic frames, Godard’s tight frames in Alphaville evoke the bearing down of the government—an extension of the trends Godard noted in the late 50’s and first half of the 60’s. Godard creates the claustrophobic feeling on multiple levels. In the hotel scene discussed above, he creates the atmosphere by restricting the camera movement, not allowing the viewers to get full access to visual information. A scene toward the end of the film, however, offers a further example of Godard’s masterful use of framing.
In this scene we find the two companions, Caution and Natacha von Braun (Anna Karina), back in the same hotel room. In opposition to the earlier scene, however, the first shot here comes from inside the bathroom. We see Caution washing his face and hands while Braun enters the room, glances out the window, and moves behind him—action we see through the reflection of the mirror. Traditionally, when film characters stand in front of a mirror, they are struggling with their identities. In this scene, though, the characters never glance at themselves—only at one another. In framing them this way, Godard has contained the characters in a smaller area within the overall composition, creating the effect of entrapment. In the same shot, after Braun stops for a moment behind Caution, she moves back and stops in the doorframe, enclosing herself even further. As Caution moves towards Braun in the doorframe, there is a cut to a close up of Braun as Caution grasps her neck. Godard is infamous for forgoing over-the-shoulder shots in favor of tighter and closer shots during conversation sequences, and this shot of Braun is no exception—Godard has brought in the camera much too close to see any part of Caution’s shoulder. In fact, the hand on Braun’s neck is only half visible, as the other half is cut off at the bottom of the screen. The frame has been closed in to the point that almost any movement by Karina would move her beyond the shot.
The third shot of the scene is from bedroom looking towards the bathroom—almost a 180-degree movement from the previous shot. Here we see Caution move into the doorframe, and for a couple of seconds both he and Braun are caught in the small space. In this shot they take up even less screen space than the shot in the mirror. The frame—in this case the doorway—has seemingly closed in even further on the characters.
This frame-within-a-frame trend continues throughout the rest of the scene. In one shot Braun stands enclosed in the window frame. As men enter the room to confront Caution they slowly become larger and larger on the screen, and in a pan of the multiple men Caution is seemingly fully surrounded, although they only stand in front of him. The constant feeling of confinement becomes the visual equivalent of the ideas Godard held regarding the France’s ever-evolving technology and centralized government.
Alphaville, perhaps because it is black and white, but perhaps more because of its intentional disorientations, is easy to overlook in the canon of speculative cinema. In responding to the technological and political events of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, however, Godard created a film that seems particularly visually aware of these cultural concerns—Alphaville holds not only the dangerous possibilities of the future, but was also the cultural and social rhythms of its time.
Connor Jones works in the film industry in Portland, Oregon.