(French/Italian, 1963, 102 minutes, color, 35mm)
Jean-Luc Godard spent the 1960s tearing the cinema apart and then rebuilding it. His deconstruction zone comprised films as influential as 1960s BREATHLESS, which broke the comfortably organized scenes and sequences of the classical Hollywood narrative into shards of jump cuts and unmotivated actions. There was the revolutionary diatribe of LA CHINOISE in 1967, and the faux documentary, TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER (1967). No filmmaker since D.W. Griffith in the 1910s ever had a period of such sustained success and innovation, and arguably, no filmmaker ever has so maddened audiences and critics with his audacious cinematic moves and coy refusal to explain his motives or his style. Godard’s obsession with film language was deeply personal: he was working through a paradox that had come to dominate his thinking about the world, and about himself.
1964s CONTEMPT saw Godard peer closely at the Hollywood cinema he loved. He had always found the works of certain directors in that cinema, like Howard Hawks (RIO BRAVO, RED RIVER, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, SCARFACE), Nicholas Ray (REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, BIGGER THAN LIFE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND), and Fritz Lang (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, THE BIG HEAT, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT), deeply compelling. Hawks’ jovial good humor and sense of community appealed to Godard’s lighter, impish side, while Ray’s gloomy romanticism accorded with his own existentialism. He particularly admired Lang’s commitment to characters who were struggling in the grip of a deterministic, unwavering fate. Godard was a true "cinephile," a man of the movies who had spent his adolescence happily dreaming away the hours in dowdy, third-run Paris cinemas soaking up the myriad, yeasty pleasures of American B films. Godard became a noisy and provocative critic for the legendary Cahiers du Cinema film journal, where his fiery diatribes on American film became known for their passion and perversity.
Godard sought to make a film that would closely interrogate the storytelling system that Hollywood was founded on, as part of an extended exercise in self-therapy. Godard understood that Hollywood’s technique, with its modernist sensibility and emotional power, was also the conduit for a vile consumerist mentality that Godard despised. No cultural institution had done more than the movies, Godard believed, to export the lushly upholstered ‘American way of life’ around the world. That way of life was addictive, an economic narcotic that Godard believed was reshaping the culture of the world in America's image. He was, of course, right. But how to separate the narrative form of the American film, which he loved, from the narrative of materialism that this form told, which he loathed?
The result of this questioning was Godard’s most explicitly "Hollywood" film of the 1960s, the big-budget CONTEMPT, with the only real star he was to use during the decade, the then wildly popular Brigitte Bardot. Like a martial arts fighter facing a much larger foe, Godard used Hollywood’s momentum against itself. He sought backing from the era’s great international movie mogul, the American Joseph E. Levine, and hired an actor recognizable from dozens of American films, Jack Palance, to play a leading role. Not only is CONTEMPT a film which burlesques the Hollywood style, but like other films Godard admired, such as Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD and Robert Aldrich’s THE BIG KNIFE, it is a film which subjects the institutions of Hollywood moviemaking to ruthless examination.
A French screenwriter, "Paul Javal" (Michel Piccoli) has been hired to write a film version of Homer’s Odyssey by American producer "Jeremy Prokosch," (Palance). Paul’s wife, "Camille" (Bardot) joins him at Prokosch’s villa, and the production meeting for this American super spectacle degenerates into a very Gallic tale of romance and infidelity, a tale that lurches from farce to tragedy. This is not a love poem to the cinema, as Godard’s contemporary Francois Truffaut would produce a few years larger in the moving DAY FOR NIGHT. Rather, it is a kind of "Dear John" letter, announcing Godard’s despair with the Hollywood cinema as an art form incapable of telling the truth about the world around it. Godard had once taken solace in the dream world Hollywood provided him; for the rest of the decade of the 1960s, he would renounce it vehemently and articulately.
The director for the aborted Odyssey project is none other than one of Godard’s heroes, the imperious and brilliant German director Fritz Lang. The casting of Lang was inspired. In the film, "Fritz Lang" proposes a version of the Odyssey, which is less expansive and glamorous than Prokosch’s. Angrily, Prokosch confronts the character "Fritz Lang" in a screening room, and accuses him of shooting a scene not in the script. "Lang" refuses to surrender the script to the outraged producer. The displacement of this parable of artistic freedom onto the "character" of "Fritz Lang" is instructive: Godard, the cynic, the realist, the social critic, is arguing for the sanctity of one man's artistic vision as the last bulwark against the effacement of individuality by a capitalism whose corroding progress is as implacable as the fate that had overtaken so many of Lang’s characters as they sought to run from it.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following excerpts are taken from a review by Jonathan Rosenbaum that appeared in The Chicago Reader, September, 1997:
Almost exactly 33 years ago, in October 1964, the critical reception of Jean-Luc Godard's widest American release of his career and his most expensive picture to date was overwhelmingly negative. But now that Contempt… is being rereleased as an art film--in a brand-new print that's three minutes longer--the critical responses have been almost as overwhelmingly positive. It's tempting to say in explanation that we're more sophisticated in 1997 than we were in 1964--that we've absorbed or at least caught up with some of Godard's innovations--but I don't think this adequately or even correctly accounts for the difference in critical response. Despite all the current reviews that treat Le mepris [the original French title] as if it were some form of serene classical art, it's every bit as transgressive now as it was when it first appeared, and maybe more so. But because it's being packaged as an art movie rather than a mainstream release--and because Godard is a venerable master of 66 rather than an unruly upstart of 33--we have different expectations.
I can remember how puzzled I was by this gorgeous film as an undergraduate. Though it was Godard's sixth feature, it was only the third to be released in the United States, preceded by Breathless in 1961 and by Vivre sa vie in 1963. The first of these was a cheap American-style thriller in black and white, the second a cheap French-style art film in black and white; Contempt, in glorious Technicolor and 'Scope, clearly didn't belong to either category. A big international coproduction (starring Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance) that even played in my hometown in Alabama, it virtually began with a scene in which Bardot was stretched out nude on a bed beside a fully clothed, then-unknown Michel Piccoli while they engaged in a curious romantic dialogue about how much he loved her various parts; a seemingly unmotivated use of red and blue filters punctuated the full-color shots. Coproduced by the vulgar American showman Joseph E. Levine--best known at the time for his distribution of Italian-made Hercules movies with Steve Reeves and his subsequent involvement with Federico Fellini--Contempt could only seem the grotesque marriage of crass exploitation and high art. (In fact, all the nude shots of Bardot were ordered by Levine after Godard considered the film done; acceding to the producer's request as literally as possible, he even clarified the commodification process in the opening evaluation of Bardot's body.)
Stanley Kauffmann's review in the New Republic was characteristic of the scorn heaped on the film. It began, "Those interested in Brigitte Bardot's behind--in Cinemascope and color--will find ample rewards in Contempt." He went on to argue that the film's longest single sequence, transpiring between Piccoli's and Bardot's characters in their flat in Rome, "can serve in all film schools as an archetype of arrant egotism and bankrupt imagination in a director....Underneath the arty prattle [of what Kauffmann termed Godard's 'clique'] about his supposed style, one can hear their unconscious gasps: 'That film must cost so-and-so many thousands of dollars a minute! Any commercial hack would be concerned to make each minute count for something. But Jean-Luc doesn't care!' The hidden referent here is not aesthetic but budgetary bravado."
.…[It] was years before Contempt started to make much sense to me. And though today I wouldn't hesitate to call it a masterpiece, and certainly one of the great films of the 60s--if not "the greatest work of art produced in postwar Europe," as critic Colin MacCabe labeled it in Sight and Sound last year--I still feel more comfortable with my earlier ambivalence about it than I do with its current acclamation as a timeless, unproblematic classic. Indeed, I would argue that Godard's eclecticism must be acknowledged and understood before one can genuinely appreciate the film.
Based on a novel by Alberto Moravia that I haven't read, Il disprezzo (published in English as The Ghost at Noon), Contempt focuses on the relationship between playwright Paul Javel (Piccoli) and his wife Camille (Bardot), a former typist. While in Rome, Paul gets hired by American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Palance) to doctor the script for an international blockbuster, based on Homer's Odyssey, being directed by Fritz Lang (Lang himself). Shortly after Paul is hired, in the ruins of a once bustling Italian studio (Cinecitta) that has just been sold, the writer insists that Camille ride in Prokosch's red Alfa-Romeo to the producer's villa outside Rome while he follows in a taxi; this flip gesture sparks the protracted on-again, off-again quarrel between Camille and Paul in their flat that takes up almost a third of the film--roughly half an hour out of 101 minutes.
The action shifts to Capri, where the film of the Odyssey is being shot and the remainder of Contempt unfolds, charting the growing estrangement between the couple and Prokosch's interest in an affair with Camille. Because Paul and Camille speak only French and Prokosch speaks only English (while Lang speaks German, French, and English but little Italian), Prokosch's assistant Francesca (Giorgia Moll) plays a key role as interpreter. (She also figures at times as Prokosch's abused mistress, and Paul makes a halfhearted pass at her, which Camille observes, at Prokosch's villa.)
…In an early treatment for Contempt, Godard describes Paul as a character from Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad who wants to be a character in Hawks's Rio Bravo. He also indicates that the first time you see John Wayne in Rio Bravo you don't care where he went to school or what his father does for a living; all that matters--and all that defines him--is what he does in the present. This description essentially translates the Homeric hero into movie terms, and it helps explain why even packing a gun doesn't suffice to make Paul an Odysseus.
Though Contempt is about a good deal more than filmmaking, Godard's extended career as a film critic--which started in 1950 and continued well beyond the time of his early features--informs the movie at every turn. Considering a few of his major sources indicates how broad and educated his conception of cinema was at the time:
1. Michelangelo Antonioni. Paul and Camille's exhaustive as well as exhausting scene in their significantly unfinished and mainly white-walled flat is in many ways the sequel to an almost equally protracted scene between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless, though that was essentially a long seduction and this is a chronicle of growing disaffection. Unquestionably Antonioni, whom Godard interviewed at length in 1964, is the ruling influence on this scene--on its casual detachment from both characters, novelistic psychological ambiguities, protracted sense of duration, and remarkable feeling for the ebb and flow of a troubled relationship….
2. Joseph Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958). Mankiewicz was the subject of the first piece of film criticism Godard ever published; Godard also expressed his admiration for this very writerly filmmaker as recently as the 1990 Nouvelle vague. Their affinity isn't hard to understand: between the two of them, Mankiewicz and Godard have probably made the talkiest movies in the history of cinema. The Quiet American--which Godard wrote about in 1958, declaring it the best film of that year--is not only a precedent for Godard's epigrammatic dialogue but, more important, the inspiration for casting Moll (who plays Mankiewicz's Vietnamese heroine) and for Godard's fascination with the process of translation….
3, 4, and 5. Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb (1959) and Jean-Daniel Pollet's Mediterranee (1963). Alas, none of these extraordinary films is available in the United States. All three explain a great deal about Contempt--especially the film's treatment of Lang and the enigmatic film within a film he's shooting. The two Lang films, which together comprise a single work, were international superproductions shot in Germany and India; they combine a consciously naive, fairy-tale form of storytelling with Lang's rigorous, almost abstract approach to design, framing, and editing. Though both were popular successes elsewhere, here they were released only as a dubbed, truncated, reedited single feature, Journey to the Lost City, which Lang disowned and barely anyone noticed. Though today Godard and his Cahiers du cinema colleagues are cited mainly as the first critics to regard Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock as serious artists, in some ways their critical defense of Lang's two Indian films--which was harder for most others, including Lang himself, to swallow--is even more important….
6. Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1959). When Paul takes a bath wearing a hat and smoking a cigar, he cites Dean Martin in Some Came Running as his noble precedent. In fact a good many of the stylistic features of Minnelli's 50s and 60s melodramas anticipate Contempt--most strikingly the bold color coding, reflected in Godard's use of matching yellow bathrobes to link Francesca and Camille to Prokosch, and elsewhere in his vibrant, emotional use of red and blue in the decor. More important, Godard at times gives big-time filmmaking (Hollywood in The Bad and the Beautiful, Cinecitta in Two Weeks in Another Town) the same satirical and grandiloquent treatment as Minnelli….
…Much as William Faulkner once credited his success as a novelist to his failure as a lyric poet and Dizzy Gillespie explained his early trumpet style as an abortive attempt to imitate Roy Eldridge, what Godard can't do is fundamental to what he winds up doing. If Contempt invents a new way of thinking about the world--combining the whole complicated business of shooting a movie with reflections on antiquity and modernity, love and filmmaking, sound and image, art and commerce, thoughts and emotions, and four different languages and cultures--it arrives at this vision mainly through a series of detours and roadblocks. Indeed, it might be argued that Godard fails as a storyteller, as an entertainer, as an essayist, and as a film critic in the very process of succeeding as an artist….
The broken rhythms of the storytelling in Contempt and the frequent slippages between stars and characters, characters and caricatures, films and ideas about films, incidents and ideas about incidents all point to innovative ways of thinking, as Godard enters the material from different angles to tease out its hidden meanings. And if these meanings take the form of a cubist mosaic rather than a linear narrative or argument, that's because stories and essays take us only part of the way in perceiving the modern world and its contradictions.
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