Friday, September 27, 2013

Contempt (1963)

Le mepris, France/Italy, 102 minutes
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Writers: Jean-Luc Godard, Alberto Moravia
Photography: Raoul Cotard
Music: Georges Delerue (Piero Piccioni, Italian/Spanish version)
Editors: Agnes Guillemot, Lila Lakshmanan
Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll, Jean-Luc Godard

The first thing that always surprises me about Contempt is how beautiful it is. That's a natural enough result of setting much of it in the daylight of Rome and Capri, casting Brigitte Bardot, and shooting in color—magnificent color. In fact, according to the consensus view revealed at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, it's now considered director Jean-Luc Godard's best after Breathless. I know Contempt was the Godard that left me most impressed walking out of the theater after seeing it for the first time (in a '90s rerelease). But the more I look at it the more frozen in stasis it seems to become, immobilized, inert, dare I say impotent, like the classical statuary on which it loves to linger.

It's a lot less playful than most Godard I know from the '60s, for one thing. In fact, it's almost stately, pitched at a snail's-crawl pace with Georges Delerue's remarkable score swelling like ripened fruit, intruding at will across anything in our field of vision. More money seems to be involved with this project too. The early '60s was a heroic era of art film, remember, one of those periods when money materializes for all kinds of crazy things. Godard and producer Carlo Ponti were kicking around names like Kim Novak, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren, and Marcello Mastroianni before settling on Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli. Jack Palance plays a leering, smacking American movie producer. And really, any movie that's about making a movie and has the wherewithal to cast Fritz Lang as Fritz Lang definitely has something going for it.

As it turns out, Contempt has much in common with Godard's breakthrough Breathless, at least in their broad outlines. In the first third, a moral crime is committed. In the middle third, a man and a woman in a relationship pass daytime hours in an apartment in a city. And in the last third, destiny plays a hand. The centers of both films are those middle sections, but whereas in Breathless the couple is deepening their romantic connection, in Contempt the relationship is dying before our eyes. Ultimately, it's a movie about the end of a relationship, though in turn that is weighed down with so much allegorical whatsits that the film operates more effectively on a cerebral level, undercutting itself.

Specifics may help illustrate: Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is a crime novelist who has been brought in as a screenwriter to help salvage a movie project directed by Fritz Lang. The producer is an American named Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), a smarmy, power-mad buffoon who brought Javal in partly because he heard Javal has a beautiful wife. And he does—Camille (Brigitte Bardot). The incidents that transpire between the three of them (and a second woman, an interpreter) are ambiguous but provocative, there are no innocents in this drama, and practically overnight the relationship between Paul and Camille ruptures. In many ways Contempt is strongest when it simply watches as the couple probes for the fault lines between them, especially in the long apartment scene.

But the film is also so vividly full of a culture of moviemaking (among other things) that it wouldn't be too hard to construct different cases for what it is actually "about." The American producer Prokosch is a loathsome creature who crawled out of Hollywood. "I like gods. I like them very much," he says at one point, in a screening room looking at rushes. "I know exactly how they feel. Exactly." A few minutes later, after throwing a calculated fit by way of bringing on Javal over any objections Fritz Lang might have, Prokosch says, "When I hear the word 'culture' I bring out my checkbook," and proceeds to write a check on the backside of a girl who obligingly bends over for him. (To which an urbane Lang, wearing a monocle, responds by saying, "Years ago, the Italians said 'Revolver'"—which I think takes the reference at least one step too obvious.)

But now you see how quickly we are so far afield of a drama about a crumbling marriage. Contempt takes the scenic route figuratively, turning corners into ingenious little nod-and-wink sleight-of-hand cinema tricks, which distract. It's beautiful, the music is beautiful, and it's always clever. But I'm not sure it has much of a heart, especially for something about the end of a marriage. The levels of contempt in this film are obviously many, so perhaps that is another one—contempt for the institution of marriage.

As for Brigitte Bardot, she is objectified from the first, in long scenes that veer dangerously close to soft-core porn. Yes, that opening scene, for example, is a tender moment of intimacy between a husband and wife. But honestly? It sets off distracting Brigitte Bardot four-alarm fires in my head and I suspect the heads of many many others. Our being privy to it this way somehow changes and supercharges it, not to mention the monumental vanity—and the other monumental asset—on display in the exchange. Nor does it feel natural, especially with the red and blue filters cast randomly over it in cuts, at pains to further emphasize the artificiality. It's the first scene, and with all that perhaps easy to miss that already Camille is tired of Paul, an interesting subtlety. But why should it have to be lost? (I know, I know. Godard has his reasons.)

Indeed, Contempt is reasonably good at tracing the endings of a faltering relationship, which is what makes it so disappointing in a way that it is also juggling a hundred other tricks and stunts, often intriguing but contributing less. It's not that I always have to have my satisfying narrative thread—though perhaps I do, I certainly like things better when they are there, I must admit—but rather more like: If you're not really interested in a narrative thread, perhaps it's better not to include one at all, let alone one that appears to be serious? There are some shots here—such as a mask floating in a blue sky—that I would be happy to gape at for 90 minutes with or without any distracting "narrative context." It's that beautiful.


  1. Just saw "Contempt" for the first time, via a DVD from the library, and your review really captures my experience of it. After viewing some of Godard's more hyperactive films earlier, I was a bit surprised how he maintains the linear quality of this one, never really leaving the breakdown of Paul and Camille's relationship for subplots. And, as you say, the whole thing has a kind of "inert" beauty, as in all the swelling-music shots of the Greek busts with their eyes bright-colored in a nod to the '60s. When I was watching Jerry Prokosch indulge his Ugly Americanism, he reminded me very much of Donald Trump, and the quote you've salvaged from that spew -- "I like gods. I like them very much. I know exactly how they feel." -- sounds even more Trumpian than I'd imagined on first hearing. "Exactly," to echo Prokosch himself. Godard had "us" sussed out 50 years in advance.

    In an aesthetic aside, I was really taken with Prokosch's modernistic house, which looks like something from the 1933 World's Fair, even if it's obviously on the isle of Capri rather than in Chicago-by-the-lake. Per wikipedia, it was the "Casa Malaparte," built around 1937, though out of use for some time when "Contempt" was filmed, which would explain it being furnished with all those brightly-colored Swedish Modern chairs (anachronistic-but-who's-counting), that in turn reflect the poster-painted eyes of the Greek statues. Again with this movie's beauty. -- R. Riegel

  2. Richard, thanks for reminding me of that scene with Jack Palance using a woman's backside to write a check -- that's pure Trump, and seems even more appropriate in the context of the recent (totally unsurprising) revelation that he is at best an empty braggart and likely something even more sinister in terms of predatory sex. Brrr. I used to be disgusted, then I tried to be amused, now I just want it to stop. Godard for president!