Jean-Luc Godard

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Richard Roud

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Comic strips seem to represent many things for Godard: first, a source book for the contemporary collective subconscious; secondly, a dramatic framework derived from modern myth—in much the same way as Joyce used the Ulysses myth; thirdly, a reaction against the subtleties of the psychological novel; finally the attraction of comic strip narrative with its sudden shifting of scene, its freedom of narration, its economy.

The plot of Alphaville is pure comic strip…. (p. 164)

Just like a [Roy] Lichtenstein painting ("Oh, Brad, (gulp) it should have been that way"), the dialogue often echoes the balloons: "Let this serve as a warning to all those who try to …" etc. Characterisation, too, has been reduced to a minimum….

But Alphaville doesn't look like a comic strip, and this is where Godard diverges from the true pop artist, who has been defined as "a man who offers a coincidence of style and subject, one who represents mass-produced images and objects in a style which is also based upon the visual vocabulary of mass production." In other words, the pop artist not only likes the fact of his commonplace objects, but more important, exults in their commonplace look. Godard resembles much more pop fringe figures like Larry Rivers and [Robert] Rauschenberg who, although fascinated by pop imagery, translate it into a non-pop style.

The second time I saw Alphaville, it was precisely the great refinement and plastic beauty of its style that impressed me. Like the volume of [Paul] Eluard poems which the dying Henri Dickson … presses into Lemmy's hand, Alphaville is the Capital of Pain (Capitale de la Douleur), and the visual style of the film is painful, menacing, anxiety-ridden. (p. 165)

Alphaville is built visually on extreme contrasts…. Basically there is the contrast of the straight line and the circle. For Godard, the circle represents evil: a man must go straight ahead, says the condemned man on the diving-board. So everything in Alphaville that represents the tyranny of the computers is circular. Lemmy's hotel suite is built in circular form; the staircases in the government buildings are spiral; even the city itself is, like Paris, circular, and to get from one place to another one must take a circular route. The corridors may be straight, but one always ends up where one started. And of course the computers move in circles. Time, says Alpha 60, is an endless circle. Lemmy [Caution], however, maintains that all one has to do is to go straight ahead towards everything one loves, straight ahead: when one arrives at the goal, one realises that one has nevertheless looped the loop (bouclé la boucle).

The inhabitants of Alphaville even talk in circles. Whenever anyone says hello, the reply is invariable: "Very well, thank you, please." "You must never say why; only because," admonishes Natacha. Death and life are inscribed in the same hopeless circle.

Contrast is also displayed in Godard's treatment of the sound. The main musical theme is … syrupy and romantic, but it never gets beyond the introductory cadence. And it is inter-cut with harsh discordant noises: the slamming of doors, the whirling of the computers, and worst of all, the electronic grating voice of Alpha 60, which is as unpleasant as it is indescribable. It would sound like a death-rattle were it not for the absolute evenness and soulless monotony of its delivery. Godard has always liked to flash brutally from a bright scene to a dark one, but this is carried to extreme proportions in Alphaville, where the greyness of the streets is continually contrasted with the blinding floodlights of the electronic nerve centres. Like so many lasers, they torture the brain, at the same time exercising a hypnotic fascination in their rhythmical flashing. (p. 166)

Richard Roud, "Anguish: 'Alphaville'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 34, No. 4, Autumn, 1965, pp. 164-66.

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