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Big in Japan, Brazil and Europe: How Jean-Luc Godard invented Alphaville

“I’m living in a Godard film…”

Vale Jean-Luc Godard, irrepressible French filmmaker and the man who brought the word Alphaville into the lexicon of language. The passage of almost half a century has done nothing to dim its stylishness, blunt its wit or extinguish its piercing message. Indeed, in these dystopian times the auteur provocateur’s work seems more relevant than ever.

September 2022 saw the loss of many prominent public figures, from (saxophonist) Pharoah Sanders and (author) Hilary Mantel to (actresses) Louise Fletcher and Marsha Hunt. And the one you may not have heard about, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. She was a monarch, you know what I mean?

Jean-Luc Godard, the pioneering Franco-Swiss filmmaker who helped lead French cinema into the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) movement, also died on September the 13th of assisted suicide. He was 91. 

Chibi French President Emmanuel Macron, in his brilliantly theatrical way, said Godard “became a master” of French cinema. “Jean-Luc Godard, the most iconoclastic of New Wave filmmakers, had invented a resolutely modern, intensely free art,” he said in a statement. “We are losing a national treasure, a look of genius.”

Godard started out as a firebrand critic known for his caustic, hyperbolic essays in the celebrated Paris magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, during its ’50s heyday. A time when, as he put it, “cinema was as important as bread”. Moreover, he poured scorn on France’s stuffy period dramas, preferring to praise the gangster movies and melodramas made under Hollywood’s studio system.

A master of French chic like Delon and Gainsbourg, he turned to film-making in the mid-1950s, starting with shorts. His feature-length debut came in 1960 with the seminal crime caper Breathless, based on an idea by François Truffaut and which won JLG the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s the movie that did more than any other to help shape the Nouvelle Vague genre for both men, and one that the auteur would shift and reconfigure for years following its release.

A brilliant, snarky satirist but also an outspoken, prickly polemicist, Godard ripped up the mise en scène, and his innovations forever changed cinematic experiences with a revolutionary, fragmented form of filmmaking that pushed as many boundaries as it did buttons.

His unorthodoxy would go on to inspire generations of directors around the world, and, seemingly even the name of the captain of the starship USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jean-Luc Picard (the similarly named Picard is said to come from twin brothers Auguste Piccard and Jean Piccard, 20th-century Swiss scientists). 

Notable for its stark shift in narrative storytelling, bold visuals, and use of skipping jump-cuts, Breathless was the breakthrough vehicle for both Godard and his equally iconic male lead, gorgeous gallic hero Jean-Paul Belmondo*, who gave a classic performance as snide existential gangster Michel Poiccard (and who himself died in 2021). If you thrill to Scorsese and Tarantino and the idea of cinema in gabby conversation with itself, well, that’s where that whole thing started.

But as we’re here, and brilliantly re-watchable though Breathless is, I generally prefer the more luxuriant Fritz Lang adaption Contempt (Le Mépris) starring Brigitte Bardot. Even better is the unnerving noir-ish Alphaville, an avant garde sci-fi caper which followed mid-point during the formative decade and starred JLG’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Anna Karina. This was Godard‘s ninth feature film in six years, a rate of production resembling that of Beatles albums across the ‘English‘ Channel.

And talking of English…

For a film allegedly in the science fiction genre, Alphaville is conspicuously rooted in the here and now. It is expressly not about the future but a present parallel universe, of which the protagonist (secret agent man Lemmy Caution, played by Eddie Constantine) doesn’t use a spaceship to get there, but simply drives his Ford automobile through ‘intersidereal space’ — an ordinary highway to you and me.

Shot primarily at night on location in the French capital, the cinematography makes very little attempt to disguise its recognisable Parisian décor of 1965. Far from a symptom of carelessness, it’s a deliberate choice, as the author J G Ballard explained: 

“For the first time, Godard makes the point that in the media landscape of the present day the fantasies of science fiction are as ‘real’ as an office block, an airport or a presidential campaign.”

In other words, they are in Alphaville but it’s not that Paris is Alphaville, but rather the exact opposite: Alphaville is Paris, and a warning of fascism future closer to home. An intimidating portrayal of a dystopian existence that is both dazzling in stylised sci-fi aesthetic and dangerous in its subtext.

Godard hints at a totalitarian world controlled by the inhuman; a technocratic world full of social myth about the competing claims of human love and new technology, of which his Sinatra-cum-Bogart-attired pulp hero is deemed not fit to exist within. The director‘s not-always-easy-to-understand alternate vision is dystopian in that emotion, love, art, and poetry have all been lost to the controlling will of the technologic, represented by a fascist all-knowing computer system called Alpha 60. 

Ever get the feeling that you’ve been heading there?

Nah, that’s just Fake News. Right?

Godard’s other main achievement in Alphaville was that its title became part of the lexicon of life. In lingua terms the name is a pan-European conjoining that translates as “first among cities” (ville is French for city and alpha the first letter of the Greek alphabet).

Salman Rushie thought enough of it that Alphaville is mentioned in the first chapter of The Satanic Verses.

And in a development seemingly devoid of ennui, the first Alphaville complex — ie an upmarket gated community for the nouveau riche — began in an affluent suburb of São Paulo in the 1970s. The film has endowed not just one but around thirty gated communities in Brazil with its name. And reality, having provided fiction with the raw material for its most dystopian scenario.

There are several other examples in modern life, including FT Alphaville (a Financial Times offshoot, began in 2006) and Lost In Alphaville, a 2014 album by American indie rockers The Rentals, who currently feature The Killers’ drumboy Ronald Vannucci Jr. in their line up.

Sticking with those musical references, the monochromatic promotional clip for Linger, the 1993 single from Irish combo The Cranberries, contains several recreations of scenes from Alphaville. 

Befitting the song’s cinematic lyric, the same year Mark Romanek’s video for David Bowie’s ‘comeback’ single Jump They Say is a more oblique homage to Alphaville (as well as contemporaneous works by Stanley Kubrick, Chris Marker and Orson Welles, and the ‘most beautiful suicide’ of the Empire State Building jumper Evelyn McHale), though some of the imagery is unmistakable, particularly the corridor and elevator sequences that echo the interview and telecommunication scenes, as well as the Bowie ‘torture’ scene with what looks like a facsimile of the computer room seen in the movie.

The darkly stylish promo depicts the Dame as a paranoid business executive whose colleagues conduct experiments on him, forcing him to jump from the roof of the building, thus escaping the oppression and torture of his slickly sinister near-future corporate setting. 

The song may have been a cheeky ‘homage’ to Visage’s synthpop classic Fade To Grey but the grayscale video for Kelly Osborne’s woefully under-appreciated 2005 single One Word is totally a tribute to Alphaville. It restages multiple sequences from the film and even recreates many of its distinctive costumes, sets and locations.

Five years later, Bryan Ferry released a single he’d written and produced with Dave Stewart. Although extracted from Ferry’s thirteenth studio set, 2010’s Olympia, the track has its roots in sessions for an aborted late nineties album with the erstwhile Eurythmic entitled — you’ve guessed it — Alphaville. And the tune would have been its title track.

Featuring BF’s erstwhile Roxy Music colleague Brian Eno on synthmeister duties, Alphaville is a groove-laden, noir-ish little number that begins all moody and intense-like with a sample of Russian dialogue that quotes the lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s swing classic I Won’t Dance. As slippery as it is evocative, the song grinds along on a creeping bass line cut through with Stewart’s nicely phased guitar hovering in the wings as Ferry underplays his husky vocal quaver. 

“Nobody knows you’re here/Deep undercover/You seem to be afraid/Why do you suffer.”

The desperate, paranoid lyrics almost seem to be describing the scenes in the Bowie video, especially…

“Don’t try to read my mind/A broken circuit/You know my hands are tied/Nobody’s perfect.

Another night/A night in Alphaville/You say you won’t/But girl I know you will/I wanna live/But life ain’t worth a dime.”

Last but certainly not least, Godard’s film also lent its moniker to one of Germany’s most popular pop acts. Residing in the upper echelon of brooding eighties synthpop, as a band Alphaville’s name is eternally tied to their memorable international hits, both from 1984: first, the spunky uptempo Big In Japan — or as I like to call it, Christiane F. On 45 (it’s about two lovers in a dreamland delusion as they attempt to escape the heroin scene of Berlin’s Zoo Station); secondly, their follow-up single, the melancholy Cold War ballad Forever Young.

Both songs both feature on a new album of symphonic re-recordings entitled Eternally Yours, which was issued on 23 September via Edel’s ‘New Masters’ imprint.

With vocalist Marian Gold the only remaining founding member of the band, Alphaville has become a de facto solo project. If you really want to indulge yourself I can recommend the 2003 box set CrazyShow, which, as well as including three radical interpretations in the shape of Roxy Music’s Do The Strand, George Harrison’s Something (originally on The Beatles’ Abbey Road, natch) and channelling some serious inner diva, Shirley Bassey’s shimmering James Bond theme Diamonds Are Forever, where Gold, who’s fathered seven children by four different women, has effectively retained the innuendo-heavy heterosexuality of the lyrics to sing “Unlike girls, the diamonds linger.” 

And in case you’re wondering, he does have the range. And the lips.

Initially a limited four-CD set, CrazyShow also includes an intriguing original called Wonderboy, which seems to be a lesson in self-help though song.  Listening to his favourite artists is an important part of the narrator’s process of “getting better” from a failed relationship, and he’s finally starting to feel like “wonderboy again.” The lyrics? 

“I haven’t been very good for some time

But now I listen to the music once again

To Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys

Now that’s what I call divine symmetry.

Me? I’m living proof of Churchill’s lies.

In other words, very well, thank you, not at all.

Steve Pafford

Jean-Luc Godard, 3 December 1930 – 13 September 2022

*Perhaps I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts, but am I the only human on earth who thought Jean-Paul Belmondo possessed a strange sort of ugly-handsome sexiness about him? With his dark, disdainful eyes and oversized boxer’s nose he exhibited a kind of magnetic brashness — and a ruggedly masculine look that just oozed virility. 

But then I thought the same kind of thing about Billy Bragg when I met him so what the fuck do I know?

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