DIALOGUES IN THE BASEMENT: ALPHAVILLE & EQUILIBRIUM

   

The following article was published in N-SPHERE April 2012 issue.

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Released in the vanguard of technological advancements concerning cinematic production, Alphaville discloses a dystopic universe that embraces erasure in order to maintain its continuous functioning. The narrative presents the expedition of an undercover secret agent named Lemmy Caution in the world of Alphaville, in order to find its creator Professor Von Braun and destroy the Alpha 60 machine that entraps the inhabitants by prohibiting love and free thought.

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This brings to mind, among several large-scale-creation-turned-against-creator works, a film that borderlines cliché-istic imagery, but in which, at a closer inspection, another machine entraps the masses. Equillibrium, however, resides in an universe controlled by a non-sentient fiend. Unlike Alphaville, this world bares no intrusions and no escapes, seeming set in time, immutable and unbreakable. Do you think these are somehow alarm signals howling above our heads in hopes of avoiding technology to overcome biology?

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At first look, the film does seem to be critical to the advent of technology by rendering visible the possible outcomes of technological advancements: industrial development gradually creates an imbalance in the relation between Man and Machine, favouring the latter and leading to a bleak future where people are deprived of individuality. The citizens of Alphaville depicted in the film seem to be trapped in a circular universe, and the machine that they had themselves created (Alpha 60) constantly regulates their existences. Is confinement an issue in Equillibrium as well?

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The city of Libria has tall, thick walls, strict policies regarding contact with the outside, a well organized law enforcement network and is overall monotonous, quiet and bleak. Although there is no actual electro-mechanical entity governing this city, an elusive reflection of Professor Von Braun does exist: Father. A watchful eye, Father knows everything, he sees all infractions, he hears all whispered emotions. This figure appears on monitors, uses (not unlike Alpha 60) technology for monitoring of the inhabitants. A tiranic figure, Father seems to be an amalgam of Von Braun and Alpha 60.

A
You mentioned the controling entity as non-sentient. How does Father fit that description? Alphaville is governed by the Alpha 60 machine, which functions as an internalized restraint for whatever they do, presents sentient behaviour.

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In Equillibrium, Father is as much a slave of this dystopic order as anyone else, even if he considers himself free. The machine here is an emergent entity, in which all subcomponents collaborate in order to entrap the inhabitants of Libria: a drug, taken to erase all emotions. Every tiny capsule of this medication is a part of the biological machine that enforces conformity. All inhabitants, the Libria goverment, the law enforcement agents, all become tools of the chemical machine.

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Indeed, in both instances, the characters seem to be result of anamorphosis, presenting themselves as real while they are in fact distorted surfaces incapable of free thought or action. As voiced by the Alpha 60 machine itself: »The inhabitants of Alphaville are not normal. They are the product of mutation.« (Alphaville, 1965). The dwellers of Alphaville appear as reflections that are unable to internalize feelings or free thought, but that are nevertheless able to mimic reality proper.

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On the contrary, Libria brims with characters that are so transformed and distorted, that they become the mirrors themselves. They reflect the grey, angular, square, quiet world around them. The amount of conversation is limited to basics and only the neccessary words are spoken. Nothing is added, nothing is extra. Nothing is taken, either.

A
This sounds similar to Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, with its symbolic society populated by clones that mimic existence and regard themselves as real.

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Yes. However, if Alphaville does emulate beings that consider themselves real, the inhabitants Libria are well aware of the fact that they hollow themselves out. They patiently wait in line, out of their own free will, as they themselves consider, to get their daily doses. Mimicking existance is taken to a whole new level, a reality that is not fake, but palpable and quite bland. For instance, even the self-discovery of an Other by the main protagonist is quiet and continuous. John Preston, a law enforcement agent, doesn’t even try to see himself. His path of self discovery has to be forced on him, by an accidental loss of a drug dose. Does this apply to Alphaville as well?

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Actually, no. One of the main characters of Alphaville is Natacha von Braun, the daughter of Professor von Braun who guides the detective Lemmy Caution through the city. She continuously attempts to discover herself, she seems to be a mask that only serves the ones around them by mirroring their desires. Natacha seems to be a symptom, not of man, but of the very system that created her – Alphaville. A significant episode to the young woman’s portrayal is the close-up scene that frames and fragments her body transforming it in the object of the gaze by means of an image. With her eyes staring at the cinematic lens, it is difficult to determine whether her discourse is a soliloquy or a monologue whose addressees are the very viewers of the film. By breaking the fourth wall, Godard exposes Natasha as both the object of the gaze and the Other that stares back from the other side of the glass.

Ω
Natasha seems to be a fractured reflection. Preston, on the other hand, is a scratchless shiny reflective object. At the beginning of the film, even when looking at himself in the mirror, there is no Other gazing back. The only one really looking back at him is the impassible face of his son, checking that he took his daily dose. Further on, though, his own essence shatters when his son reveals a complete lack of drug induced obedience, with the same calm and emotionless face. Unlike Preston, the boy is a genuine (and unique in this film) Other, set in place to negate the existance of Libria.

A
This reminds me a little bit of Lemmy Caution: cautious boy – cautious agent perhaps?

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In a complete and unrelated hey-I-discovered-a-quirk manner, yes.

A
True, the boy is cautious to avoid capture, thus creating his Other facet. Instead, Lemmy’s name is used as subtle irony. Throughout the film, the viewers more or less follow Caution’s excursion through the metropolis and his attempts to make sense of what he encounters. He seems to be able to provide all the answers and solutions concerning Alphaville, but he does not disclose any psychological depth. In other words, Lemmy Caution is neither reliable nor convincing since he is unable to reveal anything else than an appealing surface.

Ω
The detective seems to be an intrusive element in Alphaville. He breaks into the monochrome patterns and leaves at the end, but does not suffer mutation of the self. Unlike Lemmy, Preston’s son is part of Libria. His existence is not discontinued from the Equillibrium universe at the end of the film, but is assumed to be mutated into Libria-the-Other, as a result of destroying the biological technocratic tyrany.

A
What brings forth this destruction of Libria?

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It’s rather cliché-istic. In fact, it is expected for a member of law enforcement to break the rules and cripple the machine. After being made aware of a circular entrappment by a »sense offender« – »It’s circular. You exist to continue your existence. What’s the point?« (Equilibrium, 2002) – Preston is the Insider that simulates awareness.

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In opposition, Lemmy Caution seems to be an Outsider. After meeting Natacha, he admits that he wants to save her from this destructive system and help her become a »real« person, like himself, even if the only way to do this is by bringing destruction to the Alphaville machine itself.

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So how is it that both films still have that grim sensation of death even in the end? Equillibrium, for instance, breaks the entrappment by means of explosives and murderus violence, culminating in the fall of the governing figures. These actions release emotions for the Librians, causing rioting and bringing them back to the reason why the entire drug system has been set in place: “In the first years of the 21st century, a third World War broke out. Those of us who survived knew mankind could never survive a fourth; that our own volatile natures could simply no longer be risked. So we have created a new arm of the law: The Grammaton Cleric, whose sole task it is to seek out and eradicate the true source of man’s inhumanity to man – his ability to feel.” (Equilibrium, 2002)

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In Alphaville, the Alpha 60 machine loses its complete power by erasing the symbolic distance that sustains its existence. What generates this process of erasure is the Alpha question: “What am I?”. Towards the end of the film, Alpha 60 provides the answer – »it is my misfortune that I am myself, Alpha 60.« (Alphaville, 1965) that makes it self-conscious and unable to perform its own purpose. The machine’s death is associated with an absence of light that ultimately generates a general state of asphyxia throughout Alphaville.

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In this light, would there even be a point to break confinement, be it chemical, mechanical or even self-induced?

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In a permanent present that duplicates itself endlessly? Yes.

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So… how does one escape if one knows not that one is trapped?

films | Alphaville. 1965. Jean -Luc Godard | Equilibrium. 2002. Kurt Wimmer

photo | Alphaville. 1965. Movie still

Full article here.