DVD Review Of Contempt
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/10/07
Of the films I’ve seen so far of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, his best is 1963’s Contempt (Les Mépris), adapted by Godard from Alberto Moravia’s novel Il Disprezzo, published in English as The Ghost At Noon. That statement should not be taken as an acknowledgment of greatness, for although this is his best film, it is not close to being a great film for, despite a gorgeous aping of the Michelangelo Antonioni style of shooting widescreen landscapes and affinity for formal structures, the film lacks any of the metaphysical heft and narrative thrust that propel the best of Antonioni’s work, such as La Notte or Blowup. If Antonioni were more pretentious and less a wellspring of ideas, he would have made Contempt. That said, it’s not a bad film, and it does exert an odd power over the viewer, above and beyond the nude ogling of a sexy, young, and ineffably feline Brigitte Bardot.
The film was the third American release of a Godard film (following Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie), and was Godard’s attempt to go mainstream and big budget, as the film was backed by producers Carlo Ponti- an Italian, and Joseph E. Levine- an American, who insisted on more Bardot nudity to mollify American prurience. The film follows the disintegration of the marriage of failed playwright and hack crime writer, Paul Javel (Michel Piccoli, in his film debut), and his gorgeous blond but bored and vapid wife Camille (Bardot), an ex-typist. Paul is hired by a vulgar American producer, Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance)- a caricature of Levine, and goes to Rome, to be persuaded to rewrite the script of an artsy film adaptation of The Odyssey, directed by German director Fritz Lang (playing himself)- of Metropolis and M fame, that Prokosch wants to make more saleable. He is dissatisfied with Lang’s vision, even though he insists that a German has to direct his film because, ‘a German, Schliemann, discovered Troy,’ and throws a tantrum in the bowels of the famed Italian film studio Cinecittà. He also corrupts the infamous statement of Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, by stating, ‘Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my checkbook.’ The Nazi had stated he reached for his gun.
When Prokosch meets Camille he relentlessly comes on to her, even though he speaks only English, and she and Paul only French. To get in good with the producer, Paul assents to Camille’s riding with the producer in Prokosch’s red Alfa Romeo, a subservient act that somehow begins Camille’s growing ‘contempt’ for, and eventual falling out of love, with her husband, as she deems it an act near pimping her. It’s a rather thin claim and plot line, and psychologically wholly untenable, but this is what she later implies was the act that destroyed her respect for him, even though she refuses to specify it to him, and he was likely unawares of the ‘sin’ he commits. Yes, there were likely strains earlier in their marriage, that this act merely brought to a boil, but none of this is shown within the film, and nothing that later occurs makes the viewer care for either party. Another possible reason for Camille’s contempt is jealousy over Prokosch’s assistant, Francesca (Giorgia Moll), the interpreter between the parties, whom Paul makes a pass at, at Prokosch's villa, but bores her to tears with a dull anecdote about Rama Krishna. Only Lang, in the film, speaks German, French, and English, although no Italian, and is thus the most wise and emotionally uninvolved character.
When the couple returns to their expensive Roman apartment, they have an interminably long half hour argument (almost a third of the 104 minute film) which mimics the middle section of Breathless- where the lead characters alternately try to seduce one another, yet it leave the audience yawning. It’s not filmed in real time, for there are a few cuts, but it’s almost real time, and many of the film’s supporters claim this is the emotional spine of the film. Yes, it is the center of the film, but also why the film ultimately fails to realize its goals. It is not well written, it is psychologically false, the characters are both far too dim to discuss things in such a pseudo-intellectualized manner, and they also pose far too dramatically, as if mere marionettes. This section lacks both the depth and naturalism of John Cassavetes’ great nearly twenty minute drunken opening in Faces. This early affectation clashes violently with the supposed ‘realism’ the scene is striving for, and with which Godard slavishly appealed to the bankrupt intellectualized aesthetics of film critic Andre Bazin. Yet, as neither character is truly ‘adult,’ neither elicits respect nor care, and when the scene ends, Camille merely pouts as she leaves, and declares she hates her husband, who takes a gun with him, but cannot do a thing with it. He even later forgets it and has it handed back to him by Francesca, who has no fears that Paul will ever use it. This is one of the few times Godard successfully subverts a dramatic convention- and in two ways; this one being Anton Chekhov’s dictum that a gun shown in the first act of a drama must go off by the third. Not only does the gun not go off, but it only appears in the second act.
Then there is a scene at a theater, where film extras are being tested; and where total silence is made whenever a word is spoken- a nice technique that rises above mere gimmickry via its uniqueness and the well crafted dialogue that is spoken. Then the scene shifts to Prokosch’s villa, where the main characters all discuss things related to the film. Camille kisses Prokosch to make Paul jealous, but he impotently does nothing. Paul refuses to redo the script, yet none of the other characters pays attention to his dull and self-serving oration. Camille leaves with Prokosch, and the two of them are killed between the halves of a long truck when they crash into it, offscreen, as Paul reads Camille’s farewell letter. The film ends with him saying goodbye to Lang as he finishes up the film, and the camera pans off into the Mediterranean.
Godard’s reputation as a filmmaker hinges upon not his ‘excellence’ as much as his ‘daring,’ yet much in Contempt was done better by others. As gaudy a film as Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is, it, at least, stays true to its vision of film as an artifice, whereas Contempt opens with the film credits being read, rather than seen onscreen, and then has cinematographer Raoul Coutard point his camera at the audience. After that, though, nothing more is made of the fourth wall. Yes, within the film, and the film within it, there is some breaking of walls, but that is all interior, and standard. It never explodes the conventions outward, like Bergman’s film does.
Yet, whenever one reads positive essays or reviews on Godard, all one gets are elaborate explanations for what was bring attempted onscreen, rather than an assessment of whether or not what is onscreen is successful or not. This is always the first sign that one is dealing with a) an inferior critic talking about b) a work of art that is not nearly as good as the critic claims. Excuses abound for Godard’s deliberate dullness, self-indulgence, pedantry, and obscurantism, yet none of them ever reconcile the seen onscreen, only the envisioned unmaterialized. As example, the film deliberately tries to contrast the dissolution of the Javals’ marriage with Ulysses’ claimed unwillingness to return home to Penelope. Great idea, but where is this seen onscreen? Yes, one can try to shoehorn these vapid characters into their Grecian counterpart roles, as bad critics, and even the film’s commenter, do, but it’s an exercise in willful stolidity to do so, for not only are the characters not heroic, but even their mortal stature is not examined at a deeper, nor realer, level. Sexpot wife misinterprets wimpy husband’s gesture, then throws away marriage for it and ends up dead- boy, call the Freudians, the picnic- replete with pickles and sour cream, is on!
Brigitte Bardot’s character’s asking of her body’s charms is hardly
a scathing critique of eroticism- nor her superstar persona, even if one knows
this shot was appended only to please Levine. Does that fact make the scene any
the more vapid and gratuitous? Does filming it in red, white, and blue- the
colors of the French and American flags (the money behind the film’s making)
really make some grand political statement? The same color scheme technique is
used later, in the ride to meet the film crew at the boat to Capri, but with
even less effect. Is there some deeper meaning behind whether or not Paul
prefers his wife’s nipples the best on her breasts? Then there is Godard’s
tossing about of non-sequitured references to Dante, Friedrich Holderlin,
Bertolt Brecht, and even Lang’s filmic canon. Is the fact that the Cinecittà
back lot scenes are splattered with film posters- including one of Godard’s
earlier films, really that bravura, or is it cheap reflexivity to imbue depth in
the addle-minded where none exists? Yes, there are also posters for other
European films, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Howard
Hawks’ Hatari- so? The fact that the film was critically drubbed
when it opened is one of the rare times that the initial opinion was, for the
most part, correct. No, Contempt is not as bad as its worst detractors
claimed, but it is nowhere near the masterpiece Godard acolytes ejaculate over.
Other critics have misinterpreted the film as Godard’s depiction of his
failing marriage, with Paul the screenwriter as Godard, Camille as Godard’s
wife and filmic muse- the actress Anna Karina, and Prokosch as Joseph E. Levine.
Yet, again, this is reading personal information, unavailable to many, as being
intrinsic to the film, with very little to support it.
Another widespread claim of the film is that the Fritz Lang film within the film
is somehow meant to be a parody of himself. It’s not, for many of the scenes-
especially the majestic shots of the Olympian statues, are breathtaking, and far
more poetic and aesthetic than anything in the rest of Godard’s
‘outer film’ because they are without visual referents to size, and their
sheer beauty is undeniable. Some critics claim Godard was poking fun at Lang and
his more Classic filmic aesthetic, but, as Lang is portrayed as the only
uncorrupted person in the film, this is likely specious, and another example of
critics reading into films things that simply are not there, then repeating them
ad nauseam until accepted as dogma.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, comes in a two disk set. Disk one has the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and has English subtitles, in white. This is one of the few foreign films that demands subtitling, for, like Federico Fellini’s 1959 La Dolce Vita, it is filmed in multiple languages. The fact that it is shot in color also lessens the usage of white subtitles, which can be almost unreadable over black and white films. The film also has an audio commentary by film scholar Robert Stam. Overall it is a solid commentary, informative, but has a few flaws, such as too much psychobabbling on the film. Stam tries to rationalize flaws, such as the opening sex scene before the characters are cared for as being some grand statement of Godard’s on his producers. So? Without knowledge of that it is merely out of place and dull. He tries to rationalize the Rama Krishna digression of Paul’s as being dull and overly long for a purpose; but a bad technique is not ameliorated by its intentionality- which is never even established, would that one were inclined to accept the spurious claim. Dullness can be shown briefly and poetically by a better artist, without boring one to tears in the process. Similarly, his comments on the thirty minute apartment scene is just more rationalization, in a film school mode, as are his claims of the thematic links with The Odyssey; for if anything, the film shows the weakness of their adaptation, not their relevance to the tale. Then there are two flat out silly claims. The first is that the black wig that Brigitte Bardot wears is some explicit criticism of big budget Hollywood films, like that year’s Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, whose looks Stam claims Bardot is satirizing. His proof? There is none. The second is the claim that the final car crash occurs when the car slams into the back ends of two trucks, when clearly the car has run into the connecting section between two bodies of a long truck. Despite such manifest errors, Stam is thankfully short on the usual critical fellatrics and long on interesting tidbits.
Disk two has two short documentaries of Godard on the set of the film: Contempt: Godard Et Bardot, and Paparazzi. There is also a great hour long philosophic conversation between Godard and Lang called The Dinosaur And The Baby, with scenes from this film and Lang’s M interspersed, a short film by Peter Fleischmann called Encounter With Fritz Lang, an interview with cinematographer Coutard, a widescreen vs. full screen demonstration comparison, and an excerpt from an interview between Francois Chalais and Godard about Contempt on the French tv show Cinepanorama. The DVD insert comes with an essay by the always readable- even if wrong, Philip Lopate.
While clearly influenced by Antonioni’s L’Avventura- although shot in color, especially in the scenes at Capri, at the famous Malaparte Villa, replete with wedge shaped brick and stone stairs and crags that rise from the sea, cinematographer Raoul Coutard displays that he actually had talent, unlike some of the earlier, visually sloppier films of Godard. The red, yellow, white, and blue palette Technicolor scheme also is effectively evoked to give the film a look that is more modern than many contemporary films, as well as being more modern and mature in the screenplay and attitudes- despite its flaws. Coutard also makes great use of the Cinemascope wide shots- called Francescope in this production, as characters are constantly and interestingly framed at the edged of the screen. Another plus is the use of flashbacks and flashforwards as voiceovers rove, for this effectively demonstrates the faronzaled attitudes of the characters. A big negative, however, is the Georges Delerue score. The main theme herks and jerks into inappropriate scenes, and often adds a melodramatic touch that is almost laughable. It also rises up and cuts off without warning, or any relation to the onscreen goings on, and each instance of its use progressively weakens its impact. In the commentary, Stam claims that the music is used as punctuation on dramatic and/or important moments, but this is simply not so. It is undisciplined and poorly applied. To say the least, Godard was no Werner Herzog with soundtracks.
This sort of artistic anomy- along with that in other aspects of the film, may make many vapid critics masturbate, but great art is not the child that such bears. Too much is left open ended in the film, and that which is resolved simply is not that fascinating, since the viewer is never given enough to care about the characters. In this sense, Godard shares as much ‘contempt’ for his viewers as many of the bad Hollywood films, and the material machinations that produce them, this film seems to criticize. Still, it is his most successful film at connecting with an audience, more so than that other reflexive 1963 opus on filmmaking, Federico Fellini’s 8½; although Contempt is not as good a film. Nor is it as nearly as cogent a comment on marriage as either Antonioni’s La Notte nor Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. The thirty minute interlude, especially, pales in comparison to Bergman’s crackling and realistic, if intelligentsia-laden, repartee.
One wonders what might have occurred had Godard done more big budget films, for the rigor of having to meet some others’ expectations disciplined him, and toned down his most masturbatory tendencies. Unfortunately, he never again went so mainstream, a thing which is often a pox on an artist- think about all the Hollywood films of the last thirty years, or that Chick Lit that you are reading, but which occasionally can help a ‘fringe’ artist, with delusions of grandeur and an empty philosophy, mediate into excellence. Without it, Godard is simply Godard, and Contempt a beautiful film that is lifeless and flaccid, where nothing happens. It is populated by mannekins which have no lives of their own. This makes for a pretty window display, but gets old quickly after you’ve taken it all in.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]
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