Of the films I've seen so far of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, his best is Le Mépris / Contempt (1963), 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. Despite a gorgeous aping of Michelangelo Antonioni's style of shooting widescreen landscapes and his affinity for formal structures, Le Mépris lacks any of the metaphysical heft and narrative thrust that propel the best of Antonioni's work, e.g., La Notte or Blow-Up. If Antonioni were more pretentious and less of a wellspring of ideas, he would have made something like Le Mépris. That said, Godard's film does exert an odd power over the viewer, above and beyond the nude ogling of a young, sexy, and ineffably feline Brigitte Bardot.
Le Mépris was the third American release of a Godard film (following À bout de souffle / Breathless and Vivre sa vie / My Life to Live). It was also Godard's attempt to go mainstream on a bigger budget, as Le Mépris was backed by producers Carlo Ponti – an Italian – and Joseph E. Levine – an American – who insisted on more Bardot nudity to mollify American prurience.
Le Mépris follows the disintegration of the marriage of failed playwright and hack crime writer, Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), and his gorgeous blonde 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 filmmaker Fritz Lang (playing himself), which Prokosch wants to make more saleable.
Prokosch 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 Prokosch in his red Alfa Romeo, a subservient act – she feels as if Paul is pimping her – that leads to Camille's growing 'contempt' for, and eventual falling out of love with, her husband.
It's a rather thin claim and plot line – one that is wholly untenable psychologically – but, as she later implies, that is what destroyed her respect for Paul, even though she refuses to specify her feelings to him. (And he was likely unaware of his 'sin.') Surely, earlier in their marriage there were likely strains that Paul's act merely brought to a boil, but none of this is shown in the film, and nothing that later occurs made this 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. Paul makes a pass at Francesca while at Prokosch's villa, but bores her to tears with a dull anecdote about Rama Krishna. In Le Mépris, only Lang speaks German, French, and English – though 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 À bout de souffle – in which the lead characters alternately try to seduce one another – yet, it leaves 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, the argument is the center of the film, but it's also why Le Mépris ultimately fails to realize its goals. It is poorly 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 they were mere marionettes. The sequence lacks both the depth and the naturalism of John Cassavetes' great nearly twenty-minute drunken opening in Faces. This type of affectation clashes violently with the supposed 'realism' the 'argument scene' is striving for, and with which Godard slavishly appealed to the bankrupt intellectualized aesthetics of film critic André Bazin.
Still, as neither character is truly 'adult,' neither elicits respect nor compassion. When the scene ends, Camille merely pouts as she leaves, and declares she hates her husband. He takes a gun with him, but cannot do a thing with it. Later on, he even forgets it, having 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 both its uniqueness and the well-crafted dialogue. 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 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 (off screen), 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 Le Mépris 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 Le Mépris opens with the film credits being read, rather than seen on-screen, and then has cinematographer Raoul Coutard point his camera at the audience. After that, however, nothing more is made of the fourth wall. Yes, within Le Mépris, and within 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.
Whenever one reads positive essays or reviews on Godard, all one gets are elaborate explanations for what was attempted, rather than an assessment of whether or not what is on-screen is successful. This is always the first sign of an inferior critic talking about 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, but none of them ever reconciles what is seen on-screen – only the envisioned unmaterialized.
As an example, Le Mépris 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 on-screen? Yes, one can try to shoehorn these vapid characters into their Grecian counterpart roles, but that's an exercise in willful stolidity for the characters in Le Mépris are not heroic, while their mortal stature is not examined at a deep, more truthful 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 displaying her physical charms is hardly a scathing critique of eroticism – or of her superstar persona, even if one knows this shot was appended only to please Joseph E. Levine. Does that fact make the scene any less vapid and gratuitous? Does filming it in red, white, and blue – the colors of the French and American flags (the money behind the production) – really make some grand political statement? The same color scheme technique is used later – in an even less effective manner – in the ride to meet the film crew at the boat to Capri. Really, is there some deeper meaning behind whether or not Paul prefers his wife's nipples?
Then there is Godard's tossing about of non-sequitured references to Dante, Friedrich Holderlin, Bertolt Brecht, and even Lang's cinematic canon. Is the fact that the Cinecittà back lot scenes are splattered with film posters – including one of an earlier Godard film – really such an example of bravura filmmaking, or is it cheap reflexivity to give the impression of depth 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 those rare times when the initial opinion was, for the most part, correct. No, Le Mépris 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 to actress-muse Anna Karina, with Paul as Godard, Camille as Karina, and Prokosch as Levine. However, this is reading personal information, unavailable to most, as being intrinsic to the film, and with very little to support it. Another widespread claim about Le Mépris is that the Fritz Lang film within the film is somehow meant to be a parody of Lang's work. 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 classical film aesthetic, but since Lang is portrayed as the only uncorrupted person in the film, this is likely another example of critics reading into films things that simply are not there, then repeating the misrepresentation ad nauseam until it is accepted as dogma.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, comes in a two-disc set. Disc one has Le Mépris 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 DVD also offers an audio commentary by film scholar Robert Stam. Overall it is a solid, informative commentary, but has a few flaws, such as too much psychobabbling. Stam tries to rationalize flaws, such as the opening sex scene, 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 intentions – which is never even established – even if 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, Stam's comments on the thirty-minute apartment scene is just more rationalization – in film school mode – as are his claims of the thematic links with The Odyssey; for if anything, Le Mépris 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.
Disc two has two short documentaries of Godard on the set of the film: “Contempt: Godard and 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 Le Mépris and Lang's M interspersed throughout, 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 François Chalais and Godard about Le Mépris on the French TV show Cinepanorama. The DVD insert comes with an essay by the always readable – even if wrong – Philip
While clearly influenced by Antonioni's L'Avventura – especially in the scenes at the Malaparte Villa, replete with wedge-shaped brick-and-stone stairs and crags that rise from the sea – cinematographer Raoul Coutard, though working in color, proves that he actually had talent. (Godard's earlier films were visually sloppy.) The red, yellow, white, and blue palette Technicolor scheme also is effectively evoked to give Le Mépris a look that is more modern than many other films of the period. Coutard also makes great use of the Cinemascope wide shots – called Francescope in this production – as characters are constantly and interestingly framed at the edge of the screen. Another plus is the use of flashbacks and flashforwards as voiceovers rove, for this effectively demonstrates the 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 – and without any relation to what is taking place on-screen. 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 when it came to soundtracks.
That sort of artistic anomy may make many vapid critics drool, but it is not great art. Too much is left open ended, and that which is resolved is simply not that interesting – this viewer never cared enough about the characters. In this sense, Godard shares as much 'contempt' for his viewers as many of the bad Hollywood filmmakers and powers-that-be that Le Mépris supposedly criticizes. Still, it is Godard's most successful film at connecting with an audience, more so than that other reflexive 1963 opus on filmmaking, Federico Fellini's 8½ – even though Le Mépris is not as good. Nor is it as nearly as cogent a comment on marriage as either Antonioni's La Notte or Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage. The thirty-minute interlude, in particular, 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 others' expectations disciplined him, toning down his most masturbatory tendencies. Unfortunately, Godard never again went so mainstream – something that is usually a pox on an artist but that occasionally can help a 'fringe' artist with delusions of grandeur and an empty philosophy. Without it, Godard is simply Godard, while Le Mépris is a beautiful but flaccid, lifeless film, populated by mannequins with no lives of their own. This makes for a pretty window display, but it does get old rather quickly.
© Dan Schneider
Le Mépris / Contempt (1963). Dir.: Jean-Luc Godard. Scr.: Jean-Luc Godard, from Alberto Moravia's novel Il Disprezzo. Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Giorgia Moll, Fritz Lang.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.