“I love you totally, tenderly, tragically”
Director Jean-Luc Godard has tested cinema’s boundaries throughout his career. So it’s hardly surprising his foray into CinemaScope color with a bigger budget would be as much an aesthetic exercise showing off the technology’s splendor as it is a scathing look at the industry with the money and ego to utilize it. Stories of behind the scenes strife on Le mépris [Contempt] rival the faux behind the scenes nonsense onscreen with Godard clashing against his producers (who wanted more sex appeal), alienating third lead Jack Palance to the point of his wanting out, and growing frustrated with star Brigitte Bardot‘s entourage consisting of a boyfriend dividing her attention and paparazzi distracting everyone. It’s very “meta” in this way straight down to cinematographer Raoul Coutard playing himself shooting the film inside the film. The “masterpiece” label isn’t therefore unfounded.
When I first saw Contempt twelve years ago I too was blown away. I can’t tell you specifics towards why, but that feeling of awe stuck. This time, however, the experience was different. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen too many thematic copies like CQ or Réalité with glimpses behind the curtain to no longer deem it unique. Don’t get me wrong, the satire’s still biting and the humor just as off-center. Its elements are wonderful and the cinematography with long-takes and widescreen set-ups gorgeously composed, but the whole proves lacking in its obvious plotting. Surely intentional as Godard’s adaptation of Alberto Moravia‘s Il Disprezzo blatantly mirrors its characters with those of Homer‘s Odyssey—the film Fritz Lang (as himself) is directing for egomaniacal producer Jeremy Prokosch (Palance)—but it becomes tedious in layer upon layer of metaphorical subterfuge.
Godard’s most conventional work at that time, the expectations placed upon him as a New Wave auteur inevitably give pause considering its clearly defined demarcations of beginning, middle, and end. Some stylistic flourishes remain intact such as red and blue lens filters inexplicably tinting the frame during a prologue of Bardot’s naked Camille Javal begging husband Paul (Michel Piccoli) to tell her how much he loves every single part of her body. The scene itself was added on behest of the producers wanting to get their money’s worth with Bardot, but Godard gives them the proverbial finger by refusing to show anything but her butt despite her being unclothed and sensual in describing every curve. You wonder than if those color washes would have been absent completely if not for this show of force through compromise.
If so, only an abstract montage of light studies shot for Greek statues of Gods culminating in the quiet, almost mimed tragedy of Ulysses and Penelope shot by fake Lang provides an escape from normalcy. A few moments of collaged flashback recall happier times along with the moment of implosion for Paul and Camille’s marriage to throw a wrench in the linear progression, but not formally bold enough to go beyond its redundancy. The film is about the war between artistic integrity and capitalistic greed. Of moral pride and respect opposite (un)intentional indifference towards allowing those with power to attain whatever they desire as long as you gain a place at the table in return. It’s as though Godard creation is its own filming—of taking the paycheck and reconciling with the internal demons such a decision breeds.
Fritz Lang’s director endures Palance’s God complex while sticking to his vision (like Godard with Carlo Ponti). Piccoli’s Paul’s descent into this world introduces external pressures to his relationship with Bardot’s Camille similar to Godard’s own waning marriage with younger muse Anna Karina. It’s autobiography, parody, and exposé on an industry that will eat you up and spit you out before going onto its next victim in one. There’s a raw vulnerability courtesy of Godard being so personally invested in much of the same subject matter and a cold, clinical dissection of complex characters getting caught in the wake—some treading water while others drown; some by his hands. And even as the perpetual argument between Paul and Camille rages on in repetition, circling a truth we instantly understand as the catalyst, the emotional honesty keeps it worthwhile.
Prokosch’s mercurial persona at the beginning with Paul (hired to rewrite the movie Lang has supposedly ruined through script interpretation despite the producer admitting everything is on the page), Lang, and assistant/translator Francesca (Giorgia Moll) is hilariously on-point. His lecherous advances on Camille are expected, her discomfort necessary, and Paul’s willful ignorance a depressing representation of what we assume goes on in Hollywood. But while this professional arena is rendered with authenticity, it’s actually the depictions of home life that make Contempt great beyond plot shortcomings. Listening to Piccoli and Bardot fight and reconcile—rinsing and repeating—for a third of the runtime during the middle of the film is its literal centerpiece. We watch as they accept their fate, fool themselves into believing things can still work out, and eventually realize some actions can never be undone.
What’s worse is the fate Godard crafts—killing both a deserving and undeserving soul to remove excess and distraction so only art remains. The idea that Lang and Paul are selling out to agree to work on this Odyssey adaptation becomes the main conflict as money, sex, and love threaten to provide rewards able to titillate and inspire beyond creative fulfillment. You can almost see the ending as Godard removing a tumor; excising the allure of Hollywood fame onscreen in the hopes he can do the same in life. Contempt is perhaps the cathartic acceptance of his cinematic and artistic goals, his taste of the high-life to understand it’s not the way. Be gone uncouth producers without imagination or taste. Be gone celebrity fortune and the bad outweighing the good. A film belongs to the director/writer. Everything else gets in the way.