Contempt is the sixth of fifteen feature films Jean-Luc Godard directed between 1960 and 1967. It is not only one of his best films, but also one of his most narrative-driven, and therefore accessible to a general audience. Beneath the glossy CinemaScope exterior is a despairing depiction of a disintegrating marriage, as well as a deeply pessimistic portrayal of 1960s international film-making. It inhabits the same milieu as La Dolce Vita (1960) and Hollywood-on-the-Tiber concoctions such as Two Weeks In Another Town (1962).
Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is a screenwriter who has signed on with the American producer Jeremiah Prokosch (Jack Palance) for a film version of the Odyssey. Prokosch is a repulsive caricature, supposedly modeled on Contempt‘s producers Georges de Beauregard and Carlo Ponti. The director of this new Odyssey is to be none other than Fritz Lang (playing himself), the creator of Metropolis (1927), M (1931) and a handful of great films noir.
At Cinecittà studios, Paul introduces Prokosch to his beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). The salacious producer immediately invites her to ride with him in his two-seater convertible. She is reluctant. Paul insists she goes. The trouble begins…
At the centrepiece of this film is a half-hour argument between Paul and Camille on a sweaty afternoon in their modern apartment in Rome. Godard used a conversation of comparably unorthodox length between his two leads in À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). Here Paul tries to determine the source of Camille’s sudden contempt for him. Is it because he has pushed her, perhaps as a sexual offering, into the company of Prokosch? Is it because of his indecision over whether to go through with the Odyssey job? (The script will pay for Paul and Camille’s apartment.) Is it because of his lack of artistic integrity? The couple fight and then join Prokosch and Lang on majestic Capri, where the marriage soon disintegrates.
Brigitte Bardot is impressive in a complex, elusive role. Godard was one of the few directors to take her seriously as an actress. As legend has it, the producers insisted Godard make the most of their investment and include a set amount of nudity. So in the shot immediately following the credits, the lovely naked Camille is shown lying prone on a bed while she questions Paul’s opinion of her body: her knees, thighs, bottom, breasts, etc. Georges Delerue’s haunting and romantic music plays and we are swept into an intimate lovers’ moment. But Godard’s Brechtian tendencies come into play: the music concludes and the dark filter on the lens is flicked off, jarring us into a recognition of the scene’s artificiality. A new music cue commences and the camera lingers over Bardot’s bottom and legs, as if openly confessing to the vouyeuristic nature of the scene. Later nude shots of Bardot are inserted into the movie quite arbitrarily.
[credits and opening scene]
Delerue’s score consists of a few oft-repeated cues. A scene often continues far beyond the conclusive end of the cue, which has an effect similar to the “changing the filters” device: jolting us out of romanticism and back into prosaic reality. It seems that Delerue, rather than write traditional scene-specific cues, simply provided a few pieces for Godard to cut up and insert into the film as he pleased. (For some reason the Italian and Spanish prints were scored by Piero Piccioni; you can sample clips here). Likewise, in the early street footage of Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is A Woman, 1961), Godard used the raw soundtrack of each individual shot, so that every cut resulted in an abrupt juxtaposition of ambient sound.
Fritz Lang comes across as a sad, paternal figure. His resolve to continue to work despite the less-than-ideal situation is touching. We also hear Lang’s classic denouncement of CinemaScope as “only good for snakes and funerals”. Michel Piccoli is the confused and desperate husband, while Jack Palance revels in a role that is ridiculously over-the-top. Prokosch, who reads stupid proverbs out of a tiny book, wants to make the Odyssey sexier. He grins with glee at the rushes of a nude swimmer, sarcastically asking Lang whether the dumb public will “understand that.” Reportedly, Palance hated working with Godard.
[2008 reissue trailer]
[Clips of the Villa Malaparte on Capri]
A fine extras-packed DVD has been issued in the USA by The Criterion Collection. In Australia a more basic, cheaper edition is available from Universal. Perhaps inevitably, you can watch the whole thing subtitled on YouTube.
[Original review: 16 January 2002; revised: 21 October 2008.]