Sunday, November 13, 2011

Classic Throwback: Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Just when I didn’t think Godard could get more interesting, along comes Contempt, his subversive attempt at commercial filmmaking. It’s a brilliant study of marital breakdown, artistic compromise and the challenges associated with the cinematic process. The film stars Michael Piccoli as a Paul Javal, a novelist and playwright torn between the demands of a proud European director (played by director Fritz Lang), a crude and arrogant American film producer (Jack Palance), and his disillusioned wife, Camille (Brigitte Bardot), as he attempts to doctor the script for a new film version of The Odyssey. 

Dissatisfied with Lang's treatment of the material as an art film, Paul is hired by Prokosch and immedicately experiences conflict between his artistic expression and commercial opportunity, which parallels his sudden estrangement to his wife, who becomes hostile and distant following a situation which finds her left alone with Prokosch, a millionaire playboy. While based on Alberto Moravia's story of the progressive estrangement between a husband and a wife, Godard's version also contains parallels with aspects of his own life. Just as Paul's marriage to Camille is breaking apart, Godard compares it to his break from his own artistic merits in favour of a foray into the commercial - a crisis that Godard questions throughout the film.

I became just as frustrated with Camille as Paul was – and rightfully so. It remains unclear for a long time why she is treating him with such contempt, and why a seemingly innocent series of events resulted in the complete breakdown of their formerly happy marriage. For a long time it remains ambiguous, but you soon discover that Camille believes that Paul allowed her to go ahead alone with Prokosch (while he took a cab and was noticeably delayed) in order to entice more money from the man by using her to sweeten the deal. To add mystery to the story it’s never clear what happened between Camille and Prokosch during their time together. Paul doesn’t know what she is thinking, and remains confused and aloof, and growing increasingly frustrated as a result. There is no chance of reconciliation when Paul repeats the same act again. We are unsure whether it’s an innocent misunderstanding or an intentional ploy, but I assumed the former. It’s the definition of ‘selling out’ – pimping out your wife and your artistic principles. It’s masterfully done – and for such a simple story, and only a few primary locations – there is plenty of emotional and thematic depth built here.

One on hand Contempt is about the painful loss of a marriage, but on another it is Godard lamenting cultural loss. It is interesting to note that Paul is instructed to re-work The Odyssey so that it is less of an ‘art film’ and more accessible for commercial audiences. Godard, himself, was asked to make a bigger budget picture and include a big name star (Brigitte Bardot). It was an endeavour he was curious to undertake, but during the shooting he faced all kinds of challenges and it turned into a disaster. He was facing similar constraints as Paul – and Prokosch is portrayed as a vulgar, arrogant, uncultured money-grabber. It is all a bit of an ‘in’ joke because the film’s actual producer Joseph E. Levine didn’t understand that Godard personally held him in contempt. 

At one point Levine instructed Godard to add in more shots of Bardot’s naked body to increase box office appeal. So Godard included random shots of her here and there, ultimately serving little purpose than to appease Levine's demands. Godard’s own mentor and primary cinematic influence, Fritz Lang, stars as himself and adopts the role of the film’s proud director, who opposes Prokosch’s instructions, and is the reason Paul is called in. At one point Prokosch spits back at criticism, claiming: "it isn’t 1943, it’s 1963, and he’ll direct what he’s told.” Contempt documents the constant battle between classical and modern modes of cinema and filmmaking, and Godard often infused avenues of his own personal philosophies into his films, with Contempt remaining as personal as ever.

The tech work, again, is phenomenal. The re-mastered Criterion edition looks stunning through the startling use of Cinescope, the accentuated colours in the apartment and the beautiful locations around Capri. Camille’s red bathrobe and the décor (in contrast to the white walls) are most notable. Godard utilizes the long take at any chance he can, and as usual, most of the scenes in the film are comprised of only a few lengthy shots. The characters, interestingly, are kept at a distance and there are very few close-ups. The ambiguity of Camille’s contempt for her husband pushes the viewer away slightly, and may actually produce feelings of contempt in the viewer, which is likely Godard's intention. The camera often pans between the characters or follows them as they walk and exchange dialogue - rarely cutting to capture the action from a different angle, but shifting during the course of the shot. 

To complicate these scenes, everything spoken in English by Prokosch is translated to Paul and Camille in French by his assistant, and vice-versa. A haunting, but memorable score, accompanies the events. Though they seem to unfold at a meandering pace, a viewer does grow accustomed to the style and rhythm and it is a testament to the actors for ensuring their frequent movement, and ability to balance action and dialogue, keeps the film intriguing. Godard also makes use of both natural beauty (Bardot's body, and the island of Capri) and the manufactured (Prokosch's house and a primary shooting location, and Paul and Camille's apartment).

If there was a feature of this film that I found to be off-putting it was the ambiguity surrounding the relationship, and Bardot's pouting, blank-slate performance. While the sequence in their apartment (which runs for nearly half an hour) is revealing and features their marriage unraveling in what feels like real-time, and displays an array of photographic trickery, my interest began to waver because of my personal frustration. Jack Palance's performance also rubbed me the wrong way. For me, he felt like a caricature, a metaphor for the contemporary entrepreneur and commercial cinema (Hollywood), and I felt that his motivations - and his blatant attempts to seduce Camille - were short on credibility.

Contempt is unquestionably an important film in the resume of Jean-Luc Godard. Though he was forced to handle an established star for the first time and create a film that would be accessible to mainstream audiences, he still manages to endow it with his personal flairs and thematic concerns. It's a film that is challenging, haunting in it's repercussions, intellectually stimulating and marvellously shot. Whether it is a film I will readily revisit for pleasure still depends on what is to come from Godard. Up next is Band A Parte.


  1. My favourite Godard film, which admittedly doesn't mean much given that I haven't particularly liked most of what I've seen by him (which is 14 films).

  2. I found the idea and the concept of the film more interesting than the final product. I love meta films and wished he had explored it more. A film in the same subgenre that I like is Robert Altman's The Player.

  3. I liked this one a lot. It was actually the first Godard I ever saw. But I had some problems with it, too. However, it does have the trademark "startlingly and unexpectedly quick" ending that Godard often used to shock audiences, and I admire the cheekiness behind that. However, the film is simply nowhere near as good as say, BREATHLESS or VIVRE SA VIE.

  4. @ James - I wasn't sure if I was going to like Godard or not, but with each film I have found him more and more interesting. While I still prefer Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie and Masculine Feminine (which I watched before this DOTM quest), I enjoyed this a lot, despite some frustrations I had throughout.

    @ Joel - I think the comments he makes on commercial cinema - and how money-hungry and uncultured the industry has become - are really well conveyed. As is his classic vs. modern approaches argument. I think the scenes in the apartment went on for slightly too long, and the relationship had some tedious elements, but the way it all came together, and surprisingly how affecting it all was, is a testament to Godard's craft. It's certainly an interesting concept - and I seem to usually enjoy films about the filmmaking process (like The Player).

    @ Tyler - He threw in his usual cheekiness, despite pressures not to do so. I admire that too. It still felt distinctly like a Godard film, though he had the big name star (and not Anna Karina) and though it wasn't set in Paris. I liked it, but not as much as the first three. Thanks for recommending it for my Godard-a-thon. Very glad I got to see it.

  5. Wow, so you're seriously digging Godard, as is evident in yet another very detailed, and very well written entry. I agree with most of what you and the other comments have said. I loved Contempt, but it's no Vivre Sa Vie.

  6. @ Alex- Thanks for the kind words Alex. I am digging Godard a lot.