by Kris Tronerud
- Contempt (Le Mépris) • Jean Luc Godard • 1963 • Original Trailer
“The cinema is an invention without a future.”
— Louis Lumière, inventor of motion pictures; written on the wall of the screening room in Contempt
Jean Luc Godard is the original, and still reigning, tortured intellectual of the cinema. Deeply in love with the Classic Hollywood films of the 30s, 40s and 50s, yet disdainful and deeply … contemptuous… of the philistine restrictions and lack of freedom of commercial film-making as only a French intellectual could be, Godard rarely became comfortable with his material in the manner of his Hollywood idols, and many of his best films are more easily enjoyed not as ‘movie movies’ but rather as joyful, sensual and hyperkinetic exercises in the sheer joy of film-making itself. In the way painters who love painting relish the texture of pigment and brushstroke, we can almost see Godard fondling the film as he edits it himself (as he often has), using his Arriflex to make love to his actors, the scenery, the physical texture of the world, and the process itself as an end. Beneath the cool renegade posture, and all the self conscious artistry for its own sake, however, lay the heart of an unabashed romantic, and, though it may seem ‘uncool’ to say so, the films in which Godard gave free (or freer) reign to his love of emotional storytelling, and a more (relatively) conventional structure, became his finest films; including Breathless, Bande Apart (The Outsiders), Passion and, arguably his best, the ravishing, and newly restored Contempt.
Often dismissed as his ‘big budget’ ‘accessible’ film, Contempt, while certainly less maddeningly oblique and mystifying than the wacky, disturbing, and deliberately artificial Weekend, or as seemingly impenetrable as Hail Mary, is still hardly mainstream moviemaking. Composed of five or six long passages, or collections of related scenes, which, while not actually in real time, are so deftly handled as to seem so, Contempt tells the story of semi-successful screenwriter Paul (Michel Piccoli), who, while settling into a new apartment in Rome with his complex and troubled wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot), is tempted into writing a Sword and Sandal version of the Odyssey for vulgar but charismatic producer Jerry (Jack Palance) who is desperately trying to head off the artier digressions of his director Fritz Lang (played by the great one himself) while attempting to lure Camille away from Paul. Along the way Paul commits an unpardonable crime of the heart, which we see as it happens, but which Paul is only able to begin to understand as he starts to weave into his Odyssey script the threads of his own dissolving marriage.
Every morning, to earn my bread, I go to the market where lies are sold… Full of hope, I get in line amongst the sellers” – Bertolt Brecht “On Hollywood” quoted by Fritz Lang in Contempt
Contempt was made in 1963, at the tail end of the first of the many roller coaster cycles in 60s-70s Italian popular moviemaking, Just three years earlier, La Dolce Vita was made at the height of the Peplum boom (Hercules and his hundreds of movie children), and derives much of its fizzy, jacked-up energy from a Rome that was riding high on one money making muscle-bound epic after another. A scant 3 years later, the epic fad was fading, (Paul’s one big success, we learn, was the Italian equivalent of The Three Stooges meet Hercules) taking the Italian film industry into the first of several periodic depressions, and Contempt soaks up much of its melancholy from the deserted streets of Cinecitta, its sets and screening rooms decaying under the bright Roman sun. Godard seemed to be simultaneously bidding a heartsick farewell to the dying Hollywood of its glory days (and his youth), the grandeur of European filmmaking, and his fading initial faith in the power and hope of the New Wave. He was also beginning to say goodbye to his wife. (Though he and the gorgeous and talented Anna Karina stayed together for two more years, their marriage was already deeply troubled.) It is the unwinding of Paul and Camille’s marriage that provides the emotional metaphor that seamlessly ties together what might have become another Godardian polemic into a deeply affecting whole that sweeps the viewer along with a power unequalled by Godard before or since. The ‘chapters’ (briefly: the tender opening love scene; the protracted argument between Jerry, Paul and Lang about the heart of their Odyssey, the betrayal of Camille, the long, nightmarish confrontation between Camille and Paul in their apartment; the spacey tragic conclusion in Jerry’s villa on Capri) are punctuated by majestic, airy shots of ancient Greek statuary, as the Gods look down on the mortal downfalls playing out before them, appearing periodically like a mute Greek Chorus that speaks instead with the achingly beautiful music of the great Georges Delerue.
Georges Delerue was the French Ennio Morricone, a vastly prolific composer who enlivened and ennobled even the most mediocre material, and provided the emotional core of a handful of film classics; and as Morricone’s score for Once Upon a Time in America is inseparably intertwined with the heart and pulse of that film, so Delerue’s elegaic, heartbreaking music is inextricably imbedded in Contempt, carrying its rhythms from passage to passage, act to act, uniting its multiple personal and cultural tragedies, and carrying us into the hearts of its often difficult and cynical characters.
The visual accompanist to Delerue’s symphonic requiem is the stunning photography of Raoul Coutard. At one point Lang, half-joking, says that Cinemascope is “suitable only for funerals and snakes”, but Godard and Coutard clearly revel in the widescreen saturated colour and brilliant clarity of their emotive vistas, and viewers who have only seen Contempt in its wretched, cropped tape and TV versions will be astonished by the revelatory beauty of this film, so long rendered grungy and cheap in its video incarnations, when seen in all its restored “Franscope” (a cheaper but no less impressive French knock-off of Cinemascope) glory. The final scenes in Capri are among the most extraordinarily beautiful ever captured on film; the hallucinatory blue of the sea, and razor sharp detail of stone, vegetation and architecture would be mindboggling as a travelogue; as the backdrop of this multilayered tragedy, they are as indelible and compelling as cinema ever gets.
“The Cinema substitutes for our gaze, a world more in harmony with our desires…”
Andre Bazin, from Contempt
The heart of the film, however, is in its most intimate and difficult moments, in the long central section, in which we see a relationship disintegrate before our eyes in a matter of hours. Extended, naturalistic, often improvised scenes can, and have often, seemed arch, artificial and ultimately tedious, in the New Wave, in Godards lesser work, and certainly in that of his legions of imitators; but here, what could have been pretentious and tiresome becomes almost unwatchably poignant and heartbreaking, as the passionate, quietly underplayed brilliance of Godard, Piccoli, and the oft-underrated Bardot delivers the most wrenching breakup this side of Scenes from a Marriage, as we see the pain of Godard’s own marriage being explored on the spot in the same way that Paul is using the Odyssey to understand his own predicament; revealing all the petty, irrational and irreparable ways human beings tend to self-destruct in the midst of their most powerful moments of love and passion. The smoldering focus of Bardot’s performance cannot be overstated; the laserlike anger and hurt at Contempt’s crucial moment of ‘betrayal’ is immediately clear to us, even as Paul cluelessly proceeds to seal his fate. Jack Palance on the other hand is, shall we say, unhampered by the need for subtlety; but here, his larger than life intensity is perfectly channeled by Godard into the raucous embodiment of that callow indifference so many directors seem to bring out in so many producers, while still keeping Jerry three- dimensional: even in his crassest moments, Jerry, like Paul and Godard himself, also reveres the great gods of Hollywood/ Olympus.
In the end, this episodic film and its disparate “acts” are unified by three indelible images which express all the longing, sadness and hope of this farewell love letter to the power of dreams, of the Hollywoodian, artistic and personal varieties. All three are funeral-like in nature, but carry the whisper of hope that attends all deaths. Along about the middle of the film, as the two artists and their producer end their marathon of bickering, cajolery and manipulation, Fritz Lang emerges into the sunlight, accompanied by Delarue’s inexpressibly sad yet irresistably uplifting theme, and we seem to see the sum of all that was best about the grand classic Hollywood era exiting before us. Yet Lang continued to make films long after he had permanently gone out of fashion, often potboilers very much like the film-within-a-film in Contempt, and his simple dignity and perserverance refuse to leave us with out hope. The final shot of the film pans up to the placid stillness of the sea, in an echo of Ulysses’ futile journey, yet again, it seems to beckon us as well, to possibilities yet unspoken, bringing us ‘back’ to the ‘conclusion’ of the film, which, in true Godardian fashion is the first, greatest sequence of the film: In lingering long shot, Godard follows a lone camera crew as they follow an actress down a deserted Roman street in a seemingly endless tracking shot. This too, seems funereal, yet as the film crew-within-a-film crew reaches us in closeup, Raoul Coutard (playing himself) swings his ‘scope camera down to focus on us, the audience, as if to say, as so many great artists have, “its all up to you now”…. Up to us now, to keep alive the importance of art, of storytelling, of love, against all rational objection, in the face of all difficulty. It’s something Godard has done all his life, despite wild up- and downswings in popularity acceptance and fashion, and, against all odds, continues to do to this day. In the face of a film as surprising and wondrous as Contempt, we can do no less.