Following closely on from the formal experiments in Vivre sa vie (1962), Godard mounted his largest production to date, a French-Italian co-production filmed in Rome (some of it on the sets of the famous Cinecittà studio) with international stars and glorious widescreen colour cinematography. But this is still Godard, and in some ways the result is Godard’s most accomplished film. It’s certainly the film that seems to define a lot of what is most distinctive about his style during this early phase of his career, while wearing rather easily some of Godard’s formal, philosophical and political concerns. If it seems to move rather slowly at times, it nevertheless comes across as a measured classicism, the inexorable unravelling of fate, appropriate given its setting.
It’s a film about making films — a self-reflexive sub-genre that remains unsurprisingly popular amongst filmmakers. However, with Le Mépris, we should perhaps rather say it’s about not-quite-making films, just as Godard’s later Rolling Stones collaboration One Plus One (1968) was about not-quite-making a song. There’s a wealth of dissipated talent — Fritz Lang as the director and Michel Piccoli as Paul, the screenwriter — all arrayed around Jack Palance’s Jeremy Prokosch, a vulgar and satyr-like American producer. Naturally for Godard, he carries around a tiny book of aphorisms which he quotes alongside his own wisdom. “When someone says art, I reach for my chequebook” is just one of the philistinisms he comes up with to justify his behaviour. From his frank ogling of the swimming nymphs one gets the sense he thinks he’s making an exploitation film, but if so then Lang (and Godard) have other ideas. Godard’s own American producer for this film famously insisted on more nudity from female star Brigitte Bardot (playing Paul’s wife Camille) — hence an interpolation at the start of the film showing Bardot naked on a bed, shot through filters (first red, then white, then blue). Thus, one can only assume that Prokosch is the fictional alter ego of this real life figure.
Such a strategy is no surprise in this particular sub-genre, which naturally gravitates to the roman à clef, yet if the director figure is played by Fritz Lang — himself canonised as an auteur by such magazines as the one Godard wrote for — it’s clear that the Godard stand-in is in fact Paul, the screenwriter. His look and particularly his ever-present fedora hat are most strikingly like Godard (who cameos briefly at the end as an assistant director, dressed likewise), and if so it’s another characteristically excoriating self-portrait. After all, the film is called “Contempt”, and if at one level it’s a contempt felt by Godard/Paul towards his producer, then most of all it’s the contempt that Camille comes to feel towards Paul. Bardot’s lacerating gaze — far more than her bared bottom, however much the producer may have wished otherwise — is at the heart of the film.
That basilisk gaze is joined by many others, primarily mythological, for the film being made within Le Mépris is an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Interspersed throughout are shots showing the disembodied busts of Greek gods, colourfully painted as they would have been when they were made. These heads turn in front of the camera, as if in judgement, perhaps of the characters in the film, perhaps of the audience. But there are other looks, which are also directed inwards in scrutiny. After the sequence of Bardot on a bed, the film proper starts with Raoul Coutard’s camera filming a scene at Cinecittà, tracking towards our point of view and reframing to look directly at us/itself, as Godard reads out the credits. It’s not until the very final shot that this gaze is directed away and out at something else.
In turning the film’s attention inwards to Godard’s own artistic process (via his alter ego Paul), the key sequence is the central one set in the Rome apartment of Paul and Camille. It is in an unfinished state — Paul comedically opens and closes a door, only to step back through it for it has no panelling — and this sparseness allows the camera to frame shots of the two in different spaces within the apartment, failing to connect with one another. There’s a long single take back-and-forth shot of them talking, never together in the same frame, as they switch the lamp between them on and off. Even when they are together, as when Paul takes a bath, he still wears his hat and enfolds himself in literary and pop cultural references (such as to Dean Martin in Some Came Running).
The decline in the relationship between Paul and Camille may well be autobiographical to Godard at some level (Godard cast his own wife Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie and it’s she who is recalled when Bardot puts on a black wig during the apartment scene), but in the film it has far more lasting consequences — for Paul as a screenwriter, for the film he’s working on, and most of all for Camille and Prokosch. All the time these events are tracked by Coutard’s widescreen camera, which delights in the richly-saturated colours of the Mediterranean, in the clean lines of the Rome apartment, and in the symmetrical construction of the rather stunning modernist home on the island of Capri where the final scenes take place. In many ways it’s a detached gaze, like that of the Olympian statues which show up throughout, and it attains a stateliness that can make the film slow-moving at times. Yet the resulting film is among Godard’s best works, which continues to open up further subtleties of interpretation each time it’s viewed, and which I can only hint at here.
Next Up: After the widescreen of this film and Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961), Godard returned to something like his debut film with Bande à part (The Outsiders, 1964), another scruffy black-and-white B-movie about sort-of-gangsters, featuring Anna Karina again.
Update: I have since revisited this film for my Criterion project.
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Michel Piccoli, Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 (and since then several times, most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013).