Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Contempt (1963)

Title: Contempt (1963)

Director: Jean Luc Godard

Cast: Brigitte Bardot, Michel Picolli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang


My first experience with a Godard film was a film called Week End (1967) and I’ll tell you right now it wasn’t the easiest movie to watch. For me, Week End was a very difficult film to follow, but I watched it all the way through because it was Godard, and he’s one of the greats. Truth be told Week End wasn’t exactly what I’d call an enjoyable experience, I mean I appreciated the films artistic sensibilities, but it just wasn’t for me, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but there was a reason for Week End's unorthodox nature, it was part of the French New Wave of which Godard was a part of, and the French New Wave was all about breaking the rules of traditional filmmaking. I did know one thing though, I wanted to see more Godard! I knew there were other films in his repertoire that simply had to be watched, Breathless (1960) being one of them and Contempt being the other. Contempt is considered to be Godards most linear film, thought still attempting to play with the rules of filmmaking, how was it? 

Bardot (left) and Godard analyze a scene
Contempt was part of the ‘New Wave’ of French Cinema that emerged during the 50’s and 60’s. These were a bunch of new filmmakers who were influenced by Italian Neorealism; The Italian Neorealism from the 30’s and 40’s was a filmmaking movement which produced films made in real locations with natural lighting and real people, not classically trained actors, but real people acting out a role. One of the best examples of Italian Neorealism I can think of is The Bicycle Thieves (1948), a film shot in the streets of Italy, with real people. It tells the story of a working class hero and his son trying to survive in the middle of harsh economic times; a film that will no doubt pull your heart strings. So Godard comes from the New Wave of French filmmakers who were influenced by this Italian Neorealism and the classic Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s. What this New Wave of French filmmaking attempted to do was break with the rules of traditional filmmaking; they wanted to set new standards in filmmaking. This meant they broke with the traditional way of telling a story, the linear form, the three act structure. For filmmakers of this new wave, films had to be symbolic, non-linear, playing around with and changing as many film techniques as they could. It was as if cinema was stretching its muscles. For example, in Contempt the films credits are spoken, not shown on the screen! Little details like these let us know that these ‘New Wave’ filmmakers where really shooting for something different in cinema.

Contempt is a film that can be seen in two ways, on the one hand the film can be seen as an exploration of the nature of cinema, and on the other as a film about a deteriorating relationship. First, let’s analyze the cinematic themes explored in Contempt. As I watched this film, I couldn’t help and think that this was Godard’s answer to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) which strangely enough was being made around the same time as Contempt was. I did a little research and discovered that Fellini’s film was released a few months before this one, so I’m not entirely off when I say that what we had here were two masterful filmmakers tackling the same subject matter at the same time. Both films centered around filmmaking, in fact once you start seeing Contempt you know it’s about film because it starts with a camera, filming an actress as she walks down the road. The camera they are filming the actress suddenly turns to us, and looks at us with its giant Cycloptic eye, an image that quickly suggests “this movie is about film!” So right from the get go, Godard exposes this films metafictional nature. Same as with Fellini’s 8 ½, in Contempt a film is being produced, the filmmakers are attempting to adapt Homer’s The Odyssey. The problem comes when the producer isn’t happy with the film that the director is making, a common problem in Hollywood. The director of the film is none other than real life director Fritz Lang, who by the way plays himself in the film. Again, this is another attempt at breaking the rules of filmmaking; we have a real life personality intruding in the fiction of the film.

The Beauty of Bardot

Going further into analyzing the nature of filmmaking we meet Jack Palance who plays the character of Jeremy Prokosch, the producer behind the film they are attempting to make. This is the most villainous character I’ve ever seen Palance play, he is so acid, so full of himself, so self centered. It is quite obvious from the first moment we meet him that he is an imposing and intimidating figure who only cares about what he wants. He sees himself as a God, in fact, this is the sole reason why he wants to make The Odyssey because as he puts it he understands the gods and knows exactly how they feel. Was this character Godard’s way of personifying the typical Hollywood producer? Was this they way he saw them? By the way, Contempt was the first and only Godard film to be produced by American producers, so I guess that could say a thing or two about how he felt about them. The producers behind Contempt are the ones responsible for all the nudity in the film, they needed a selling point in a film they cared nothing for, in fact, the producers of Contempt actually hated the film! So Godard had to go back and shoot the opening sequences of Camille (Bardot) and Paul (Piccoli) talking naked on the bed. By the way, this might have been a scene which Godard was forced to film, but I have to give the guy credit for doing it in such a beautiful and artful way. Of course, Bardot’s blinding beauty adds a lot to this picture as well. She was such a bomb shell during her days! Wowzers! She shot straight to my ‘favorite bombshells ever’ list.

The difference between Fellini’s 8 ½ and Contempt is that while Fellini’s film tells it’s story from the point of view of a films director, Contempt tells it from the point of view of the films writer. In Contempt we meet Paul Javal, a writer of cheap crime novels. Prokosch, the egotistical producer calls upon Paul writing skills so that he re-works the script for the film. Prokosch feels cheated by the film that Lang has shot; so he hurls the film can across the theater like a Roman discus thrower, unhappy with the final results. In a desperate move he asks Paul to rewrite the script, according to him he wants to infuse the film with poetry and spectacle. Paul accepts, but only because he needs the money, not because he really wants to write it, which speaks volumes about how a lot of films get made. Paul accepts because he wants to finish paying for his little apartment, so he and his wife can be happy.

Which brings me to the other situation this film explores; the couple that is crumbling apart. The film starts with both of them promising undying love to each other, but one event starts setting them apart. The film goes into this extended sequence in which we follow the couple into their apartment, doing their every day chores, bathing, cooking, undressing, dressing, as they talk about what it is that is bringing them apart. Why is Camille suddenly so upset? Does she no longer love Paul? Why does she suddenly hold nothing but Contempt for him? This part of the film I found so very interesting because the dialog simply rings true. I’ve personally been through conversations exactly like the one that I saw on this film, so it was amazing to see Godard painting such real life situations on the screen, so truthfully, so vividly. It is said that this film was a love letter to Godard’s wife, which is kind of funny because 8 ½ can also be seen in the same way! Ultimately, and the heart of the film is Paul trying to find out why Camille has fallen out of love for him. It’s that kind of situation where a woman knows exactly why she no longer loves you, but she simply won’t tell you, many of us have been there haven’t we? The film portrays both sides of the tale, the male side and the female side, which is something that Godard loved to explore, both sides of the tale. He never really takes sides I think; to me the film simply shows us the mistakes they both make so we can see where they both failed.  

In the end, I loved this film not only because it explores the nature of filmmaking and relationships, but also because it is such a beautiful film to look at. Godard plays around with the colors a lot, and on top of that, the film was shot in such beautiful locations! Capri, Italy, Rome…the film has a breathtaking look to it, which kind of clashes with all the negative drama going around the characters. Contempt is definitely a must watch, a classic film you shouldn’t pass up, highest possible recommendation my friends, highest possible recommendation.

Rating: 5 out of 5  



Betosky82 said...

I loves me some early Godard, and this was probably the last movie he made from his filmography (in chronological order of course) that I enjoy

Franco Macabro said...

Looking forward to seeing Breathles Jorge!

LLJ said...

I think Raoul Coutard's cinematography was a big part of Godard's best films in the 60s. Contempt and Pierrot Le Fou are among the most ravishing colour films of the 1960s.

Franco Macabro said...

True, the colors are amazing and a huge part of what makes these films so watchable, thanks for commenting LLJ!


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