In general, I’m not sympathetic to the auteurist film aesthetic. I think films tend to be better when the director treats the screenplay as a foundation instead of a springboard. But when a director with an auteurist sensibility is at the top of his or her game, as Jean-Luc Godard was in much of his nouvelle vague period, I admit the films can be as impressive as they come. Breathless, Vivre sa vie, and Band of Outsiders, among others, are great movies, and part of that greatness comes from one’s awareness of a richness to the final pictures that is far removed from the stories Godard started with. Breathless, for example, would seem on paper to be just a banal little tale of a hood on the run from the police. Godard, of course, transformed it into a portrait of contemporary life among young people in early-‘60s Paris. The movie has a freshness and immediacy that remain striking over 50 years after it was made. Godard’s best nouvelle vague films are the visions of a director, not the visions of a scenarist that the director is helping to realize.

With Alphaville (1965), Godard’s ninth feature, one wishes he had been able to find and realize a directorial vision to the same degree. If there was ever a story that needed to be transformed by the filmmaking process, the banal science-fiction pulp of Alphaville is it. I don’t mean to suggest that Godard’s handling of the material is at odds with the auteurist aesthetic; there’s considerable directorial imagination on display in every scene. But it never rises above the decorative; Godard still seems shackled to pulp narrative conventions throughout.

What may have undermined Godard the most was the decision to build the film around the character Lemmy Caution, a secret agent/private detective featured in a series of ’50s and ’60s French B-movies. The problems were further compounded by the casting of Eddie Constantine, the actor who portrayed Caution in those films, in the role. I haven’t seen the other Lemmy Caution pictures, but in Alphaville, Constantine plays the character as the embodiment of the noir tough-guy private-detective cliché. When one watches Jean-Paul Belmondo’s hoodlum in Breathless, or Anna Karina’s femme fatale in Pierrot le fou, one doesn’t identify them with their antecedents in Hollywood films except, perhaps, as a joke. The characters are thoroughly informed by the actors’ personalities, and Godard shapes the scenes to best take advantage of this. However, Constantine’s Lemmy Caution never comes across as anything but a predetermined stock character. Godard doesn’t play this clichéd figure for irony, and the novelty of seeing such a character as the hero in a science-fiction thriller wears off very quickly. He’s still the taciturn man-of-action on a mission into an alien, dehumanized society, where he falls in love with a girl whom he rescues and escapes with after the mission’s completion. In other words, he’s a trite protagonist in a trite story, and Godard is so weighed down by him that the film can’t rise above its pulp foundation.

Constantine’s age works against the film as well. He was 47 when the film was shot, and the decision to pair his character romantically with a heroine played by the 24-year-old Anna Karina just does not come off. In Breathless and Band of Outsiders, Godard showed a tremendous affinity for romance among younger characters. He’s charmed by it, and he extends his delight in what he’s showing to the audience. When he depicts the relationships of somewhat older people, as in Contempt and Une Femme mariée, he’s cold and judgmental, but he manages to be fairly incisive. With the May-December romance of Alphaville, he’s neither enchanting nor perceptive. The relationship here is a writer’s conceit, and it’s unconvincing onscreen. There is no rapport or tension between Constantine and Karina. Karina tries–she makes a game use of the bashful, looking-for-approval mannerisms that were so effective in Band of Outsiders–but Constantine does nothing to play off her. The scenes between the two come across like a stern father lecturing his unsophisticated daughter.

The material that’s center stage in Alphaville is hopelessly inadequate, but one can’t help but admire Godard’s work around the edges. There was no budget for elaborate sets or special effects, so Godard and cinematographer Raoul Coutard had to make locations in contemporary Paris seem futuristic and otherworldly. The camera is frequently angled upward to show the ceilings and emphasize the pervasiveness of fluorescent lights. Reflections in glass and on the walls are common in many of the interior shots. Characters are often shown walking up and down conspicuously modernist stairwells, and Godard makes effective use of power-plant locations in several key scenes. I was especially struck by his use of a recording studio for the parts in which Constantine’s character is interrogated by the computer that rules Alphaville. Constantine sits in the recording space with suspended microphones moving around him and lights shining and blinking through the control-room glass. The film’s visual schemes are ingeniously eerie.

Godard has some inspired narrative and staging ideas as well. After Constantine’s character destroys the city’s ruling computer—I won’t spoil the clever way he does it—the minds of the city residents are short-circuited: they flail around and embrace the walls with their arms. Sex is depersonalized in the film’s world, and thus useless as a trope for love’s consummation, so Godard has the Constantine and Karina characters consummate their feelings poetically. Their love scene is a montage of their faces against minimal backgrounds while Karina reads a passage by poet Paul Éluard in voiceover. Conceptually, Godard’s treatment captures the passionate feelings and eternity-in-a-moment quality of such scenes perfectly; one can almost forget that Constantine and Karina aren’t believable as a couple. The most brilliant bit is Godard’s depiction of the public executions of those who have violated the city’s ban on emotion. They are made to stand on a diving board at a swimming pool while they are strafed with machine-gun fire. When they fall into the water, a group of women make a choreographed series of dives into the pool. The women then swim over to the condemned person and hold him underwater until he has drowned. As a piece of absurdist satiric spectacle, this is unsurpassed by anything Godard has done elsewhere. The film is worthwhile on the basis of these scenes alone.

However, it’s a shame Godard can’t make Alphaville more than the sum of its better moments. When he’s used pulp scenarios in other films, he can usually be relied on to transcend them either in whole or in part. What seems necessary is for him to give the story and characters he discovers while shooting the film precedence over what he’s conceived beforehand. Godard the director should be in charge. Alphaville fails because he didn’t realize the material in that way; the auteur of Alphaville is unfortunately Godard the scenarist. For a filmmaker like him, that’s deadly.

Robert Stanley Martin’s reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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