Director Jean-Luc Godard
Director Jean-Luc Godard on the set with actress Brigitte Bardot
Godard on the set with actress Brigitte Bardot and actor Michel Piccoli
Godard on the set with actress Brigitte Bardot
Cameraman Raoul Coutard
Left to right, actor Michel Piccoli, Fritz Lang, actor Jack Palance, and the director Jean-Luc Godard
CONTEMPT (Le Mépris) A
France (99 mi) 1963 d: Jean-Luc Godard
Le Mépris is a simple film, without any mysteries, done away with appearences. Le Mépris proves in 149 frames that in cinéma as much as in life, nothing is secret, there is nothing to elucidate, only a need to live, and to film.
―Godard on the film
an apologetic testimonial to Godard’s estranged wife Anna Karina
Only the third Godard film released in America following Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) (1960) and My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux) (1962), each released one year afterwards, a story of men cut off from themselves, the world, reality, lost in their own vanity and egotism, yet allegedly the purveyors of art in contemporary society, part of a long line that goes back to the classical Greeks, with this film examining a small film crew as it recreates Homer’s The Odyssey, where questions arise whether to update to a more modern version or rely upon the original power of the work, wondering if contemporary society can still relate to an ancient world, drawing parallels between literature, cinematic reality, and life, becoming the point of view of the Greek gods watching a human drama unfold. Perhaps the only big budget film of Godard’s career, financed for a cool one million dollars, with legendary producers Carlo Ponti (who originally bought the property rights of the book for his wife Sophia Loren) and Joseph E. Levine (associated with the Hercules movies with Mr. Universe Steve Reeves) and a bonafide box office star (whose salary accounted for half the budget), this becomes a subversive comment on Hollywood, revered in the 30’s and 40’s by the young guns at Cahiers du Cinéma who relished the idea of auterism, becoming an anti-commercial film, exactly the self-reflective style that drives producers nuts, as it’s more interested in art and analytical thinking than making money, with a sumptuous use of CinemaScope color, contrasts, and emotions, featuring performances by Jack Palance playing a tyrannical American producer Jeremy Prokosch, Fritz Lang as himself, a legendary film director of M (1931), and the hauntingly lovely Brigitte Bardot as Camille, stuck in a repressive relationship with Michel Piccoli as Paul, a playwright turned screenwriter, with much of the film examining the disintegration of their marriage. A good portion of the film is a lengthy argument that replicates the kind of on again and off again bickering the director was experiencing with his own wife, actress Anna Karina, using bits of dialogue spoken directly from her mouth that finds its way into this film, with Godard expressing a sense of urgency to be transparent, but theirs was a marriage on the rocks filled with turbulence and frayed nerve endings, leaving both exasperated by their inability to connect, though Godard, like most men of the era, was dominant and overbearing, literally crushing her soul, leaving her angry and bitterly contemptuous afterwards, feeling belittled and humiliated, where he only had himself to blame. It didn’t stop them from making seven memorable films together, as each had a unique artistic gift that beautifully blended well together, but when left alone in tiny rooms to lead their own lives, they crumbled under the pressure, making each other’s lives miserable, never really figuring out how to be happy. This film gets to the root of toxic masculinity, going back to the era of the Greeks, where man was a heroic figure living in collaboration with the gods, but he was easily brought down by his own flaws and human limitations, becoming the tragedy upon which the immortal story rests.
Quite different than Godard’s usual inclination to improvise or write his own films, this is actually adapted from an existing work, the 1954 Alberto Moravia novel A Ghost at Noon, listed at #48 in Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century, the same author of Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista) (1970), who was known for providing realistic psychological studies that reflect the anxieties of contemporary times, yet Godard was never impressed with the novel, dismissing it as a cheap paperback, calling it “a nice vulgar read for a train journey,” viewed as overly simplistic and pretentious, yet exactly the kind of generic text he could change into his own, defying conventional rules for filmmaking, transforming it into an exploration of the state of cinema in 1963, opening with a quote from longtime Cahiers editor André Bazin, “The cinema substitutes for our gaze at a world more in harmony with our desires. Contempt is a story of that world.” (According to Roberto Donati from Le Mépris: Analysis of mise-en-scène – Offscreen, Godard erroneously attributes the quote to Bazin, as it actually comes from Michel Mourlet’s essay “Sur un art ignoré” in Cahiers du cinéma, issue No. 98). Godard hated working for Levine and Ponti, who he labeled “King Kong” and “Mussolini” respectively, making this a difficult shoot, yet early on we get a taste of Godard’s thinking at an all but abandoned Cinecittà Movie Studio in Rome where we find American producer Jeremy Prokosch proclaiming, “Only yesterday there were kings here…this is my last kingdom!” With an inflated producer’s ego where he can literally see himself as a god, where producers are dictators that only care about profits, forcing directors to submit to their requirements, showing little regard for a filmmaker’s vision or their creative process. Cleverly, his assistant Francesca mysteriously translates what Prokosch says as, “C’est la ﬁn du cinéma” (“It’s the end of cinema”), an expression attributed to Godard himself, finding little use in traditional ways of doing business, which reveals itself in the opening scenes. Ordered by producer Joseph E. Levine to submit nude scenes with a marketable sex symbol Brigitte Bardot, recognized throughout the world as a global icon, intended to spark ticket sales, Godard complies, filming Bardot’s backside, but makes it as unerotic as possible, forcing it upon viewers in the opening moments, filmed in red and blue filters, where it has the feel of an obligatory contractual demand that is quickly dispatched with, over and done with, though it sets the foundation for what follows, with little effort displayed to arouse sexual desire, completely undermined by all the bickering (exhibiting a high degree of contempt). Ponti was so offended that he immediately dubbed the film into Italian, deleted the gorgeous Georges Delerue melancholic score while rescoring it with an Italian composer, snipped 16-minutes off the film and released it without Godard’s name in the credits, setting the stage for what was a baffling reception upon release, spoken in four different languages, praised to the hilt by some while also falling into the dustbin of history, as it was out of circulation for nearly thirty years until Criterion reassembled and restored it to its original glory, where it certainly influenced Fassbinder’s BEWARE A HOLY WHORE (1971), with Martin Scorcese claiming “It’s also one of the greatest films ever made about the actual process of filmmaking.”
Paul and his lovely wife meet up with Prokosch at the studios, offering him a job to rewrite the script (adding plenty of steamy sex scenes), watching brief clips in a screening room of what’s already been filmed, using an abstract style filmed with symbolism and classic simplicity, with the illustrious Fritz Lang at the helm, though actually shot by Godard, who was his assistant on the set. Prokosch is furious with the footage, claiming it’s not marketable, beaming with excitement when he shows a naked mermaid sequence that is more in line with his thinking, as it’s what every man wants. Let’s face it, Prokosch makes his demands perfectly clear while browbeating his female assistant Francesca (Giorgi Moll) who is constantly at his beck and call, continuously at his side simultaneously translating several different languages, with the producer inviting them all to his villa for a drink afterwards, vulgarly offering a ride to Camille in his flaming red Alfa Romeo convertible, a two-seater, making Paul take a cab. Prokosch has made it no secret that he’s taken an interest in her sultry looks, following her like a hound dog on a trail, but all she can do is offer a look of despair as he speeds away. Camille feels like she’s used as sexual bait to lure in the American producer and seal the deal, a despicable manipulation by her pimp of a husband. By the time Paul arrives, Camille is fuming, but Paul is clueless to his role in her dour mood, peppering her with questions about her sullen attitude, wanting immediate confirmation of his suspicions, yet she plays coy, giving him little to nothing, not wanting to spoil the party. This is the turning point of the film, however, as they both hint at what it all means, struggling to understand what’s going on under the surface, yet neither one seems to hear the other, stuck in a state of emotional paralysis that continues well into the next scene when they get back home, squabbling over every last little detail. Like Prokosch, Paul is something of a bully as well, never really leaving her alone, constantly accusing her of something, as if she’s the one responsible, yet never mentioning anything that he might be held accountable for, like selling his soul to work for Prokosch. It’s a slowly developing passive-aggressive interrogation scene, with Paul trying to get Camille to spill the beans and acknowledge what’s troubling her. If it’s about taking the job, he won’t, if that would make her happy, otherwise they could use the money to finally purchase their flat (which he purchased to make her happy, though he can’t afford it). No longer interested in jump cuts, these are intentionally long scenes that leave a dreadful air in the room, as if life has literally been sucked out of both of them, with the camera moving back and forth in the empty spaces of the apartment, clearly avoiding each other. Only after an extensive period of repeated questioning, like a series of small attacks, do viewers realize the extent of the divide, but not before witnessing Paul flirting with Francesca the next morning, which gets Camille’s blood boiling, like committing a criminal act in broad daylight. Invited by Prokosch to the island of Capri, Camille expresses little interest, but Paul makes a big deal out of it, putting the burden of responsibility on Camille to make a decision about whether or not he takes this job, a technique that allows him to blame her afterwards if things don’t work out. She’s not at all happy about being played as a cornered animal, and Paul senses her discomfort, but is blind to his role in manipulating her continuing despair.
There are some amusing aspects of the film, starting with the opening credits, which are spoken rather than printed onscreen, with Paul always in a hat with a cigar that resembles Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING (1958), while Prokosch continually makes pretentious quotations from his little red book, a reference to Quotations from Chairman Mao, aka The Little Red Book, while also in a fit of anger jettisoning some canisters of film stock, resembling a discus thrower, generating a caustic response from Lang, “Finally you get the feel of Greek culture.” There’s an interesting use of movie posters outside the Cinecittà Studios that freely advertise films like TIME WITHOUT PITY (1957), Psycho (1960), ROME ADVENTURE (1962), HATARI! (1962), and an Italian poster of Godard’s prior film My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux) (1962), while later in the film they go to a screening of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), which also depicts the dissolution of a marriage similarly happening on the island of Capri, beautifully melding cultural visits to a growing sense of space between the characters in order to heighten the emotional distance. Bardot also dons a Louise Brooks dark-haired wig reminiscent of Anna Karina from My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux) (1962), which feels like no accident, while Piccoli was wearing Godard’s own clothes in their infamous standoff sequence, as reality and fiction become intertwined, integrating his own life into this film, becoming an examination of art and commerce, classical and modern, Europe and America, and the French New Wave style against the fading studio system. True to all Godard films, there are various quotations from literature that are spoken throughout, which has a way of intermingling the past and the present, many of them spoken by Fritz Lang, who is viewed as the man of letters on the set, an unflappable figure who represents 50 years of cinema history, including the transition from Silent films, while also surviving the Nazi uprising, taking refuge in America, where he reminds Prokosch, for instance, “Jerry, don’t forget, the gods have not created man. Man has created gods.” In a discussion with Paul about The Odyssey, where Paul wants to rewrite the story mirroring his own fractured marriage, certain that infidelity is the root cause for the lengthy absence of Ulysses from Penelope, yet Lang, who remains faithful to the original source, calmly reminds him, “Homer’s world is a real world, and the poet belonged to a civilization that grew in harmony, not in opposition, with nature. And the beauty of The Odyssey lies precisely in this belief in reality as it is.” By the time they get to Capri, taking place at the fabulous Casa Malaparte, an architectural marvel overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Camille is victim of yet another shocking betrayal, with Prokosch (basically a wolf to her Little Red Riding Hood) inviting her out on his boat, with Paul again deferring, offering his willing approval, having learned nothing from the last instance, viewed as particularly cruel this time around, arousing in her a feeling of utter contempt for him, as viewers know how it affected her earlier, even if Paul doesn’t seem to care. Capri, however, becomes Camille’s newfound home, as she couldn’t be more comfortable, taking to it immediately while ignoring Paul, sunbathing in the nude, swimming in the coastal clear waters with a carefree abandon, resembling the mermaid fantasy that excited Prokosch so much earlier, but this time it appears to be in spite of Paul (and something called irreconcilable differences), where his final desperate plea for her falls on deaf ears, renewing her own sense of personal liberation and freedom from him, with another throwaway ending culminating with a senseless death, just like the end of My Life to Live (Vivre Sa Vie: Film en douze tableaux). The finale is shot from atop the villa, with the film crew shooting the moment in Lang’s film where Ulysses finally returns after a ten-year absence, gazing across the sea to the shores of Ithaca, we are told, with a hurried assistant named Godard crying out “Silenzio,” but all that viewers can see is the vast emptiness of the sea, stretching out endlessly into the horizon. More of a shipwreck than a homecoming, with Godard describing the film as “The story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day reach a mysterious deserted island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say.”