Le mépris (Contempt) (1963): France – directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some language and sly nudity
It is quite difficult, going back and watching a master’s old films and attempting to review them. It is difficult to understand how the film was received when it premiered, how one might have reacted and reviewed it at the time. It is difficult to judge a master filmmaker, one whose body of work is highly regarded, one who is responsible for one of the truly groundbreaking shifts in cinema, and one who continues to influence filmmakers today.
Jean-Luc Godard is famous for helping pioneer the nouvelle vague , the new wave of French filmmakers that dominated the European film landscape in the 1960’s. Breathless was an audacious and provocative venture, boldly destroying established methods of filmmaking, including editing, plot, and dialogue. Perhaps Godard figured that, since cinema was a lie, why not expose it in a shocking manner?
As a result of his brutal jump-cuts, bandying about between actors while dialogue flowed chronologically, the world of cinema took note, inspiring many filmmakers to challenge traditional methods of crafting movies. Le mépris came a few years after Breathless, and the filmmaking is substantially more calm and collected. There is none of the brazenness in which Breathless reveled, though Le mépris certainly has its own style.
The film has a plot, though the focus remains on themes and ideas rather than what happens. The opening is odd enough, as a voice reads the opening credits with no onscreen notation. A camera follows a young woman down a path, then turns on the viewer, effectively breaking the fourth wall. The narrator informs us that this film is about, as the critic André Bazin wrote, a world more in harmony with our desires, as cinema is.
A French writer has been hired by an American producer working on an Italian film directed by Fritz Lang (played by himself), the German director of films such as M. They are attempting to make The Odyssey, though Lang’s aesthetic is leaning more artsy than the swords-and-sandals the producer wants. Tension has erupted, and the writer, Paul (Michel Piccoli) has been called in to rewrite certain scenes. Paul and his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) are courted by the producer, Jerry (Jack Palance), with Camille perhaps getting a little extra attention.
In the process of deciding whether he wants to sell himself to write a mass-produced, generic adventure film, Paul’s relationship with Camille falls apart, helped along by Jerry’s advances towards Camille and Paul’s own inclinations toward Francesca (Giorgia Moll), Jerry’s assistant and translator. Lang is the only character who remains calm, knowing that he must endure bullish producers and ambitious screenwriters if he wants to make his film.
The dialogue is an exotic mixture of French, Italian, English, and German, with large portions being translated onscreen by Francesca. There are some fantastic scenes, such as the intriguing opening segment after the “credits.” A nude Bardot lies on her stomach in bed, with Paul sitting nearby. They discuss each other, and she wants to know what he likes about her, whether he fancies her knees or her ears. Bardot, with her pouty lips, is rarely fully clothed in the film, but it never seems exploitative or purposefully erotic.
The film tackles some fascinating themes, such as the disintegration of a marriage (involving the two participants’ expectations of the other). In the same way, Godard examines the expectations an audience has of the cinema, and how it is not always a harmonious celluloid world. Godard explores these themes using numerous long takes, sometimes minutes long, as the camera follows Paul and Camille around their flat after a stressful day with Jerry. These themes, and the unconventional manner in which the story unfolds, are the most intriguing aspects of Le mépris.
Much of the time I suspected that I should have known more about what was going on, especially regarding Lang’s attempt to make The Odyssey. Some of the symbolism and complex themes involving Greek gods most likely escaped my grasp. I appreciated that the film was exploring interesting issues, especially the metaphysics of filmmaking, but much of the time I was emotionally detached. Outside of a few fantastic scenes, I felt like I was watching the film from a distance, disassociated from the proceedings and characters, even if I was often entranced by Godard’s style and actors. I feel like I need to see the film again, to study it more closely, in order to fully appreciate what it has to offer. Perhaps it’s not a true classic, but Le mépris remains an interesting study of the intangible difficulties of filmmaking and art.