CONTEMPT: Godard's Odyssey Into International Co-Productions

September 14, 2023 - 2:51pm
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt (Le mépris) were written by Pate Duncan, PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication Arts at UW Madison. A newly available 4K DCP restoration of Contempt will screen on Friday, September 15 at 7 p.m. at the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue. Admission is Free!

By Pate Duncan

Early in Contempt (Le mépris, 1963), nestled deep in a conspicuously barren rendering of the Italian cine-city Cinecittà, Fritz Lang offers up a few dailies of his adaptation of The Odyssey. A veritable god of the cinema in his own right, Lang’s inclusion in Jean-Luc Godard’s filmed-in-widescreen-and-color epic rounds out an already stacked cast, boasting Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, and Jack Palance. Considering these factors alongside the film’s status as an adaptation from Alberto Moravia’s novel, Il Disprezzo, one gets the impression that Godard had gone commercial.

But this is, of course, a film by Godard, the exacting formalist, critic, and radical. Though burdened by the recent flop of Les Carabiniers (1963), the enfant terrible of the Nouvelle Vague had just finished a string of some of his most fondly remembered features: Breathless (1960), A Woman is a Woman (1961), Vivre sa Vie (1962), and Le Petit Soldat (1963). Godard was a polarizing figure at this time, but was nevertheless significant as an exponent of the infamous Cahiers du Cinéma, serving as an interlocutor and aesthetic sparring partner with renowned New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut and Agnès Varda. However, Godard’s personal life was tumultuous; the filmmaker stole money from friends, family, and the Cahiers office to finance his films--though not just his; Jacques Rivette’s fine debut feature Paris Belongs to Us (1961) was made in part from Godard’s purloined production funds--not to mention his stormy relationship and later marriage to his early muse Anna Karina.

This is all to say that it would take far more than just production value to make Godard go commercial, though producers Joseph E. Levine and Carlo Ponti certainly tried. Despite their demands for a more conventional product (the opening ogling of Bardot is the most infamous of these concessions, though Godard still manages to transform it into a tender moment between the central couple and an audacious display of the film’s color palette), Godard constructs a defiant work of auteur insurgency. Contempt centers around Piccoli and Bardot as Paul and Camille Javal, a writer and his wife who find themselves in Italy at the behest of Jeremy Prokosch (Palance), an American producer embodying all the worst of Hollywood’s excess and harboring a not-so-subtle interest in Camille. The couple, already on the rocks, negotiate profound personal wounds, professional ambition, and the endurance of art with Prokosch potentially underwriting it all.

What could play out as a tawdry love triangle on paper materializes on screen as somehow one of Godard’s most achingly sentimental and formally exacting works. While Paul and Camille exemplify the mid-century alienation of heterosexual screen couples so common in this period, Piccoli and Bardot make this pairing feel anything but typical; Godard made this gravity clear when he described the two leads as “castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity.” Paul’s penchant for cruelty is matched only by his passivity, while Bardot’s Camille subordinates the actress’s infamous sex appeal to an impressive display of menacing glares and vacant sadness. The lover’s quarrel takes on a far more personal dimension when Camille dons an oversized black wig, an overt nod to Anna Karina’s iconic bob that frames the character in no uncertain terms as taking some inspiration from Godard’s then wife. Years later, Karina would describe how Godard used words from their own real-life spats for dialogue in Contempt, saying “There are elements of my relationship with him throughout the movie. He created a scene in the bathroom where Bardot was upset and angry and uses lots of very bad words, she screams ‘merde, merde’— and, well, I used to do that when I was a little bit angry with him too—not aggressive, it was all quite playful really.”

What may frustrate viewers unfamiliar with Godard in general or Contempt in particular is the way Godard’s formal experimentation complicates the straightforward sentiment at work in the film. Even Georges Delerue’s devastating score (so affecting as to be repurposed by Martin Scorsese for the theme to his 1995 film Casino) isn’t spared from Godard’s tinkering, the strings cutting off before resolving or returning with little motivation. Godard’s play with visual style operates with completely different preoccupations, with David Bordwell noting Contempt’s preoccupation with the potential of CinemaScope aspect ratio throughout the film. Elsewhere, Bordwell compares Godard’s complicated formal devices, tonal registers, and deployment of norms of other modes of filmmaking to a palimpsest, a set of norms and devices constructed on top of each other. Put succinctly, Bordwell observes that “Godard does not synthesize norms; he makes them collide.”

Contempt, then, sees Godard shuttling back and forth to meet various imperatives: those of the producers giving him such a large budget, both classical Hollywood and European arthouse norms, his left-wing ideological commitments, his aesthetic preoccupations with film form, and his emotional investment in this story of a marriage made untenable. On top of all of that, Godard returns to The Odyssey. His abstract, primary-colored rendition of Homer’s epic—here presented via Lang as a willing mouthpiece—situates the contemporaneous concerns of the film’s production against the presumed endurance of antiquity.

Even if viewers have seen Contempt before, this will likely be the first time for many seeing it in a world without Jean-Luc Godard. The filmmaker continued working in increasingly radical and experimental spaces, embracing anti-auteurist collective filmmaking, the move to digital, and 3D. He even hopped on Instagram Live for a free masterclass during the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, chomping on his usual cigar in between bits of advice to young filmmakers. Godard passed on September 13th, 2022, with UW Cinematheque screening Contempt just days after the year anniversary of his death. It’s hard not to imagine Godard like one of the statues in this film, at once timeless and defiantly modern, now immortalized in that forever separate realm of art. I’ll leave him the final word on Contempt, what he called “A simple little film without mystery, an Aristotelian film, stripped of appearances, Le mépris proves in 149 shots that in the cinema as in life there is no secret, nothing to elucidate, merely the need to live—and to make films.”

CONTEMPT - 4K Restoration Trailer from Rialto Pictures on Vimeo.