Contempt – Enjoy a little Avant-Godard

“’The cinema,’ Andre Bazin said, ‘substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires.’ Contempt is a story of this world.”

I just cried my way through a third viewing of Contempt (Le Mépris) a film I never ever tire of. I know there are some vague problems with this film – it doesn’t have the coherency of Vire Sa Vie (for example) and the Hercules scene at the end is pretty weird, but honestly, those minor concerns mean nothing in face of the astonishing achievements Godard makes with this beautiful intelligent film.

This is a film about so many things, but mostly it is a criticism of commercial film making. This was his one foray into “commercial” filmmaking and for Godard, that was no small compromise. As much as any director and more than most, Godard believed strongly in art for art’s sake and not compromising his artistic conceptions for prosaic monetary considerations. The very making of this film tore at the fabric of Godard’s artistic vestments. I have read that five million dollars of the budget was paid exclusively for the right to film Bardots bottom, and so Godard, with an astonishingly subtle wit, films her bottom, all the while making fun of the fact that we will pay so much to see Bardot’s bottom.

But that is just the beginning of the thematic contradictions Godard skillfully play with in this film. It is a film about communication, and so three of the films six main characters speak different languages, while only one (an oppressive female presence) speaks the languages of each. It is a film about hierarchical problems in main stream film production, and so we see a remarkably attractiveness crass American producer (played by Jack Palance) dominating and controlling Fritz Lang (played by Fritz Lang) and our writer (MIchael Piccoli), who is really Godard himself. Money and the role it plays in film is an important theme, so the story is about a man who blames his wife for having to take a job that forces his own self-hatred, and so in retaliation, comodifies his wife. Godard opens the film with us watching the virtual making of a scene, the end of which, he turns the camera on us.

In Contempt,  an argument arises between the producer Jerry Prokosch,  and director Fritz Lang over a film version of The Odyssey. After watching some takes Prokosch explodes ‘that’s not what is in the script!’ — and yet, on consultation, there it is. Lang explains patiently: ‘you see, Jerry, in the script it’s written, on the screen it’s pictures’. The two are incommensurable — no wonder such slippages occur between them, is part of what Godard wants us to know.

The film can largely be separated into three separate chapters.  The first chapter occurs in a deserted back lot of the Cinecittà film studios in Rome. Even the opening credits are unusual. They are provided by voice, as a tracking shot follows a woman, Francesca Vanini (Giorgia Moll), walking down the otherwise vacant back lot of the studio. Francesca acts as the interpreter throughout the story. At the end of the credits, the same voice states, “’The cinema,’ Andre Bazin said, ‘substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires.’ Contempt is a story of this world.” Godard was informing newcomers to his audience (his regular fans required no reminder) that he was not interested in making films that mimic reality. His is the world of imagination and desires.

We soon meet screenwriter Paul Javel (Michel Piccoli) and his wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot). In fact, we meet them up-close and personal, especially Camille. They are lying quietly in bed in the morning, Paul already dressed but Camille stretched out naked on her stomach. Bardot in her heyday  was the most photographed woman in the world. Paul and Camille are sharing sweet-nothings as any loving couple might. Camille asks Paul if he likes her feet, then her ankles, then her calves, and continues in an erotic meandering up Bardot’s body. Paul answers “Yes”, with each successive question. Meanwhile, the lighting shifts from natural, to blue filter, and to red. The scene ends with Paul stating, prophetically, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.”

This scene was apparently added in at the end of shooting, at the request of the producers, who’d paid all that green for their pound of flesh. This is incredibly ironic when you consider one of the films primary themes is a wife who instantly loses all respect for her husband when he complicity treats her as a sex object in order to impress a rich American film Producer. Godard has Bardot asking Paul (us) “do you like my toes?” then “do you like my ankles” as the camera dwells dwells dwells on her golden flesh. She is carved up for our pleasure – and by her own voice (she who took the five million in exchange for showing her bottom) with an irony that we see revealed as the film moves forward. Godard uses the blue and the red to both mask her, reveal her and obscure that which he has been asked to sell  as Georges Delerue’s music rumbles threateningly like a thunderstorm.  Paul is dressed and almost non existent.  This guerrilla tactic sums up this brilliant film: an act of sabotage occasioned by a story about selling out.

Contempt reverses the idea of love at first sight–that ideal that’s sold so many movie tickets and blighted so many lives. Godard demonstrates that one insignificant gesture, one momentary lapse of attention, can cause the woman you love to become completely indifferent to you.

Paul and Camille have a new apartment and Paul, worries about paying for it. He has been offered a relatively lucrative opportunity to rewrite the script for a film, but taking the job will require compromising his artistic ambitions a bit – selling his talents for a commercial endeavor. Paul meets with the American film producer, Jeremiah (“Jerry”) Prokosch (Jack Palance), who is a vulgar, crass, obnoxious sort of ugly American. Worse still, the film (an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey) is already in production under the direction of the great Fritz Lang.

Prokosch is dissatisfied with what has been produced so far to the point of being irate. As the man in control of the purse strings, he intends to force changes on Lang that will enhance the commercial potential of the film. Near the end of the negotiations between Paul and Prokosch, Camille arrives, by prearrangement, to meet Paul. Prokosch invites the Javels to come to his villa for drinks. He offers to drive Camille in his flashy red Alfa-Romeo sports car, which has room for only two, and suggests that Paul follow in a taxi. Although Camille seems uncomfortable with this plan, Paul agrees. When Paul arrives at the villa, he discovers that Camille is looking at him with new eyes. She feels that he has left her vulnerable to the predatory Prokosch as a sweetener to get him favour with the producer and gain the job he seeks.

The second chapter, which is the centerpiece of the film, takes place in the Javel’s apartment. By the appearance of things in the apartment, Paul and Camille have yet to be fully settled in. The drapes have not yet arrived and boxes of belongings remain strewn about. During the films next half-hour, Paul and Camille engage in a classic marital dispute, neither really able to effectively express their issues or deal with those of their partner. The quarreling is presented with extraordinary psychological realism.

As the conversation ebbs and flows through a troubled relationship, the two go about ordinary daily activities with physical casualness: bathing, sitting on the toilet, sometimes stopping mid-sentence, exiting and entering rooms, standing across the room from one another, and opening a drink. Their conversation has all too much the quality of picking at a scab. They can’t ignore their problems but picking at them is just further irritating the wound. She successively grows cold and contemptuous, denies that her feelings for him have changed, tries haltingly to make up, and finally admits that she no longer loves him. Paul’s primary (but counterproductive) motivation seems to be a need to confirm his suspicion of her newly contemptuous feelings and to demand an explanation. His insistence on an explanation has a bit of the feel of his wanting to bully her out of her feelings, when he should be assuaging them.

The visuals in this scene are breathtaking. The apartment is meant to show a stylistic life. It is an attempt to make great beauty, but it as yet incomplete. There are large figures of women, cold, stone like, dotted about the apartment that make us think of Camille’s coldness toward her husband. shots of the couple ion separate rooms, yet with their back to each other. The couple are moved about by Godard like figures on a chess board as each tries to out manouvre the other.

The third chapter takes place mostly at a magnificent chateau in Capri, on the Mediterranean, where Paul and Camille have gone to observe the next stage of the shoot of the film within the film. Paul must try to cope simultaneously with the unraveling of his marriage while also deciding whether to take the script-rewrite job. The natural beauty of this setting is exceptional and contrasts dramatically with the shattering of the marriage.  Camille decides to leave Paul, gets a lift with Prokosch, and rather strangely, dies with him in a car accident.

An essential component of the film is the film they are making, a remake of the Odessy story. Both of the artists, Fritz Lang and Paul don’t want to mes with the story line but Prokosch wants to ‘modernise’ it.  Lang refuses to, but Paul confesses to Camille that he wants to try to convince Lang to change the film, even though we know Paul does not agree that the classic should be messed with.  In a life imitation of art, Palance had some trouble with Godard, as did Bardot, because of Godards refusal to accommodate their petty needs and desires that symbolised their star status. Godard’s difficulties with Bardot’s celebrity status, Palance’s unhappiness, and his producers paralleled the production difficulties of the Odyssey film within the film.

The marriage of Paul and Camille could be equated with the difficult marriage of Godard’s artsy directing style with the commercial requirements imposed by his producers. Other parallels were intentionally built in by Godard. For example, at one point in the film, Prokosch hurls a reel of film like a Greek discus and at another point expresses his understanding of Greek gods. Paul puts on a toga-like towel after his bath in the middle chapter. Thus, the Greek element permeates not only the Odyssey film within the film but the film itself.

Before feminist critiques of the movies became common, Godard made an early and memorable attack on the sexism of the movies. And later, the absolute mulishness of Bardot’s character earns Godard’s grudging respect. It’s not Bardot whom Godard hates, but Bardotism: the packaging and sexual exploitation of a woman. Bardotism is a metaphor for the packaging and exploitation of any talent, especially his own. Godard once said, “I am a whore fighting the pimps of cinema,” and none of his films expresses that dilemma more starkly than Contempt.

Many nice ideas for this came from the Epinions website reviews.

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