07 May 2008

Contempt (1963)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: Alberto Moravia
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: A

After a decade lost at sea, Odysseus returned home to find his wife Penelope still faithful but surrounded by boorish suitors; he slew the whole lot of them, of course, out of righteous fury, thus restoring the reputation of his wife, home and family. Or, at least, so goes the conventional interpretation. In Godard’s Contempt (Le M├ępris), producer Jack Palance hires Michel Piccoli to tinker with the script of a film adaptation of The Odyssey that Fritz Lang, playing himself, is directing. Piccoli discusses Homer’s story with Lang and offers a more modern analysis—Odysseus left his wife because of longstanding issues in their marriage, and stayed away for so long by choice, not as a consequence of Neptune-orchestrated fate.

Piccoli is, of course, shaping art to fit his life. Odysseus’ heroics belong to Ancient Greece; in Twentieth Century Europe, Piccoli barely pauses a moment before he hands over his Penelope (Brigitte Bardot) to the first suitor that comes along. Why does he do such a thing? For money, of course. (Not in an overt Indecent Proposal sort of way, but close enough.) And thus Godard draws his stinging distinction between history and modernity, between capitalism and pre-capitalism. When a communist party pamphlet stumbles out of Piccoli’s back pocket at one point, it’s no accident.

It’s even a bit comical, actually, as is much of the film. At his best when his directorial manner is easygoing and his tone silly, even while shouldering serious subject matter, Godard here is constantly at play; a short musical theme runs almost ceaselessly throughout, for example, and in the first scene he keeps switching filters arbitrarily, from blue to none to red—foreshadowing the vivid reds to come, on everything from couches and convertibles, blouses and bathmats, to the painted eyes of Greek god statues. (The solemn audience at Film Forum, where the film recently screened, let out nary a chuckle, this writer not included, presumably out of a misguided academic respect for Foreign Film.)

Told in three distinct sections, the romance plays out most fitfully during the second act, a prolonged romantic squabble in which Bardot dances around the issue at hand—the way she has been sold, whether literally or not—and Piccoli dutifully follows suit, disingenuously laboring to discover the root of her sulking as if he doesn’t already know. But acts one and three also go after something act two only hints at, when Piccoli, in a fedora with a cigar between his teeth, admits to consciously modeling his look after Dean Martin’s in Some Came Running—with its back lot/on-location settings and its backstage story, Contempt is about movies.

Part one is set on a movie studio that looks like Roman Ruins, the characters romping on what look like the last vestiges of cinema. The set has been sold and will probably be turned into a five and ten, Palance declares with hilarious histrionics. Godard suggests that the film is set during the end of the cinema; a projection room screen includes a popular Lumiere quote, translated into Italian: “cinema is an invention without a future.” (Despite the posters for Psycho, Hatari! and Godard’s own Vivre Sa Vie slathered on the walls.) Lang famously quips that Cinemascope, in which the film is shot, is only good for capturing snakes and funerals, and so we get a film full of slimy, serpentine characters and a memorial service for the cinema. On the set, after Piccoli asks whether some scantily clad women will undress, he’s told, of course. “Movies are wonderful,” he mutters. But if there’s something unsettling about women being used as objects of desire, as media of exchange (for sex or for translating) or, bent over, as tables on which to write checks, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Movies present “a world in harmony with our desires,” Godard tells us at the very beginning, quoting his teacher Andre Bazin, before turning an on-screen camera at the audience, letting us know that, in his estimation, we’re responsible for the objectionable behavior we see on the screen. “You long for a world like Homer’s,” one character says. “It does not exist.” Not even at the movies.

Watch the trailer:

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