Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Film Review: Contempt (Le Mépris)

This article was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on October 18, 2011.

Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Contempt opens with a lovely, intimately tender moment between its two main characters. Paul (Michel Piccoli) is a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter in his mid-to-late thirties. His wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is a former secretary in her late twenties. They lie in bed together, enjoying a rapport based on playful flattery. She takes pride in her gorgeous figure, and he indulges in his words: he tells her he loves her “totally, tenderly, tragically.” The scene was added at the insistence of the film’s producers, who wanted cheesecake footage of Bardot, the era’s reigning sex symbol. (She lies naked on her belly, her bare rump prominently displayed.) The motive for including the scene was crass, but the film is richer for it. This prologue gives the audience its one glimpse of the couple’s happiness before their relationship falls apart.

Their break-up is precipitated by Paul’s taking a job as a screenwriter on a new movie version of the Odyssey. The film’s director, Fritz Lang (who plays himself), has reached an impasse with its American producer (Jack Palance), and the producer wants Paul to do rewrite work on the script. His self-respect demands he not take the job. He’s not especially interested in screenwriting, and he’s far more simpatico with Lang than the producer, who’s a smug, quick-tempered vulgarian who reflexively seeks to humiliate everyone he deals with. The producer doesn’t even hide that part of his reason for hiring Paul is the opportunity to hit on Camille. But Paul convinces himself the money is worth it. If nothing else, he’ll be able to finish paying off his and Camille’s Rome apartment. He rationalizes that it’s all for her.

Paul is essentially declaring himself a whore, and it’s clear that his seeing it as being for Camille’s benefit leads him to blame her for the situation. He doesn’t stand in the way of the producer’s efforts to come on to her. He humiliates her further by letting his attention (and hands) wander to the producer’s pretty assistant in her presence. She drops every hint she can that she doesn’t want him to do this job. She even tells him how much happier she was when they didn’t have money, and he was hacking out crime novels for a living. But she’s relying on rapport to tell him how she feels; telling him outright means their love isn’t strong enough to do the job. His resentments stand in the way.

Godard does some of his most skillful writing and directing in this film. The middle section is especially impressive. It’s a sequence set in more or less real time in Paul and Camille’s apartment. The camera follows them while they talk and argue in the apartment’s various rooms. Godard’s writing beautifully evokes the ebb and flow of conversation between two people whose closeness has become distance. Relationships allow--and are even built on--a couple’s ability to speak indirectly to each other and still be understood. Godard shows us the tension and frustrations that come when two people go through the motions of that communication without the bond that makes it work. The skill of the direction is apparent in Godard’s ability to effectively pace this in a brilliantly sustained half-hour set piece. People talking past each other has never been handled more artfully.

The bent of Godard’s previous films was social criticism, but this venture into domestic drama doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his other themes. Contempt also features some of Godard’s most incisive criticism of one’s relationship to books, films, and other media, specifically the tendency to treat a work as an allegory for one’s own experience. Paul of course sees his circumstances in terms of the Odyssey, identifying himself with Odysseus, Camille with Penelope, and Jack Palance’s producer with both Poseidon, Odysseus’ divine nemesis, and the suitors Odysseus must fight his way through to regain his place at Penelope’s side. But as the film goes on, Paul uses his identification with Odysseus to impute motives to the character that aren’t apparent in Homer’s work> He speculates that Odysseus left Ithaca to fight in Troy in order to escape the oppressions of a bad marriage. Odysseus’ purported distaste for his relationship with Penelope is the reason he took so long to return. Godard’s point is that people read texts every which way in order to reflect their mindset at a given time. He also takes care to show that Paul’s views of the Odyssey are Paul’s, not the film’s. Godard fakes the viewer out a bit. He interpolates a shot of a statue of Poseidon to identify the Palance character with the god. But it isn’t too long before he highlights that this was a red herring, particularly when he cuts to a shot of Athene, Odysseus’ protector among the gods, for no discernible allegorical purpose. A shot of a statue is just a shot of a statue, and a text is just a text; the meaning one projects onto it is one’s own.

Is Contempt Godard’s masterpiece? It has certainly taken on that reputation in some quarters. This view of the film seems rooted in the Beat/Counterculture notion that the more “personal” the work is for the artist the better; the highest goal is “self-expression.” I don’t doubt the story material had more private resonance for Godard than, say, that of Breathless or Vivre sa vie. He was married to actress Anna Karina while he was making Contempt, and their relationship was a notoriously stormy one. It’s not a great leap to assume his distress over his own failing marriage is reflected in his portrayal of Paul and Camille. But I don’t prize self-expression for its own sake. I’m more interested in the originality and distinctiveness of what the artist brings to the table. One of the freshest elements of Godard’s work is his capacity for maintaining a coolly cerebral view of his characters while being simultaneously charmed by them. One doesn’t get that with Paul and Camille. Godard seems captivated by their relationship, and he treats them sympathetically, but he doesn’t seem entranced. Contempt, as impressive as it is, often feels like he’s picking a scab.

Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:

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